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A Historical Overview of Inmate Labor in Pennsylvania

The Pioneer in United States Prison Labor
The evolution of American prison labor is rooted in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania penal system, originating in 1682 under the leadership of William Penn, was the first state prison system to suggest the replacement of torture and mutilation as punishment for crimes with hard labor in houses of correction. Penn’s intentions were not systematically executed when his penal code of 1682 was repealed. As a result, labor in penal institutions was practically non-existent in Pennsylvania during the Colonial Period. However, Penn’s efforts were not futile as the penal code outlined in 1682 left a mark on the laws of Pennsylvania and the evolution of prison labor across the nation.
In 1773, the Walnut Street Jail was constructed in Philadelphia. During the early years of the Walnut Street Jail, Penn’s order to establish workhouses was revived. The constitution of 1776 directed the enactment of laws establishing houses of correction for “punishing by hard labor, those who shall be convicted of crimes not capital.” Legal force was added to the provision of the constitution by the law of 1786, which ordered the punishment of prisoners by “continued hard labor, publicly and disgracefully imposed.” This act provided that prisoners were to be employed in workhouses and in the repairing and cleaning of streets and highways. The assumption of this time period was that idleness was a deteriorating force and that hard work should be used as punishment and discipline.
During the early years of the Walnut Street Jail, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (known today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society) was formed to improve the“revolting conditions” that existed in penal facilities. More specifically, the Prison Society targeted the manner in which Walnut Street Jail inmates were placed on public display as they cleaned city streets. As a result, public labor of prison inmates was abolished. The Prison Society called for separate, solitary confinement and labor with instruction in labor, morals and religion. Work was not to be for punishment, but to be used as an agent of reform.
The earliest act providing for the solitary employment of inmates in prison workshops was enacted in 1789. This Act provided that a special department of the Walnut Street Jail be reserved for inmates sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor. Cells, sheds and buildings of the jail were to be designed to accommodate the employment needs of inmates while preventing communication amongst them. The Act of 1789 was superseded by the Act of 1790, which outlined the regulation of industries in the Walnut Street Jail. This law regulated the hours and days of the week inmates were to work. Further, the legislation authorized the keeper to provide the stock and implements for the workshops and make contracts for the sale of articles. Further legislation the same year, 1790, transformed the Walnut Street Jail into the Walnut Street Prison, Pennsylvania’s first state prison.
The first state prison system implemented several innovative ideas in the management and rehabilitation of criminals, including an expanded and successful prison industry. From 1790 through the late 1820s, the most common occupations were nail making, shoe making, stone sawing, weaving and picking and carding wool and hair. Inmates also made their own clothing. The industrial and commercial organization of this period was conducted according to the “piece-price” form of the contract system. Under this system, contractors supplied the raw material and paid the state an agreed amount for work done on each piece or article manufactured by the inmates. Gradually, however, these industries became unproductive and disordered as the Walnut Street Prison became overcrowded due to an influx of prisoners from across the state. The limited capacity of the facility was congested. Inmates sentenced to solitary confinement with hard labor were put in the congregate department of the prison and double celled. This led to a smaller percentage of inmates productively employed and a general breakdown of the disciplinary system as communication among inmates could no longer be restrained. Internal affairs of the Walnut Street Prison alarmed the public. In turn, prison reformists focused on determining the causes of criminality. The roots of crime were thought to be found in inadequate training in school and church. Pennsylvania’s response to this penal philosophy was the construction of two state penitentiaries designed to rehabilitate offenders with a focus on inmate employment.
In 1827, the Western State Penitentiary was built in Allegheny County and in 1829 the Eastern State Penitentiary was built outside Philadelphia. Act 23 of 1829, enacted through the influence of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, ordered that the fundamental program of penal administration at both facilities be solitary confinement at hard labor. This solitary system of prison labor failed at Western Penitentiary due to the small cells, which lacked adequate air and light, making solitary work impossible. Instead, labor at Western Penitentiary was conducted in common congregate workshops and the system of solitary confinement was abandoned. In fact, an Act of 1869 allowed the desired congregation of prisoners for industrial purposes and, by 1873, the congregate shop system was installed at Western Penitentiary. During this time, Western developed a diversified industrial program where the production of shoes, cocoa mats, hosiery, and brooms continued into the twentieth century. Prison administration at the Eastern Penitentiary, on the other hand, was successful at implementing the system of solitary confinement with hard labor. In fact, Eastern became the national model for the “separate system” where inmates were confined to their cells to work under the supervision of correctional officials. They were forced to comply with work demands in an effort to instill self-discipline and healthy work habits into their characters. Industries were of a simple, elementary nature so they could be managed within the confines of a single cell using the handicraft method. Because of this, weaving and shoemaking were the chief industries at Eastern and a few inmates were employed dyeing cloth and picking oakum/wool in the isolation of separate cells.
Around the time the “separate system” was developing in Pennsylvania, New York introduced the “congregate system” at Auburn State Prison where inmates worked together in common workshops. Opponents of Pennsylvania’s separate system criticized that without congregate workshops, inmates could not use power machinery, and therefore, were not as productive. Opponents of New York’s congregate system insisted that guards had to be more highly skilled and trained in order to supervise the congregate workshops. Although the systems were different, both emphasized rehabilitation through a steady routine of labor. Eventually, however, the “separate system” and its associated concept of solitary labor were abandoned in Pennsylvania and separate confinement at hard labor had become practically nonexistent by the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The Industrial Revolution of 1848 and the Civil War period caused a significant amount of strain on prison industries, especially the most productive industry, weaving. Progress in mechanical weaving in the outside manufacturing world made the attempt at a competition by the handlooms of the penitentiary hopeless. As a result, an increasing number of inmates were idle.
An Act of 1883 abolished the contract system of convict labor and introduced the public account system. Under the contract system, inmate labor was directed by contractors for manufacturing purposes. In contrast to this, under the public account system, there was no intervention by outside parties. Employment of the inmates was directed by the state and the products of their labor were sold for the benefit of the state. In fact, provisions were outlined for the compensation of prisoners. Inmates received quarterly wages from which board, lodging, clothing, and the costs of trial were deducted. The remaining balance was paid to their families and dependents. If the inmate had no family or dependents, the money was paid to the inmate upon release. Shortly following enactment of this legislation, the State Industrial Reformatory at Huntingdon was built.
Huntingdon was constructed in 1889 as an industrial reformatory, cloned after the Elmira Reformatory in New York. The reformatories emphasized labor, education and religious training. Therefore, Huntingdon was built to house young men “in such a way as to admit to their classification, and their instruction and employment in useful labor.” The legislature appropriated $5,000 for tools, lumber, leather, iron, and cloth to be used in the tailor shop, shoe shop, blacksmith shop, brush shop and on the farm. Industrial shops, including brick and stone masonry, were in the rear of the facility and it had a 663-acre farm and a forestry camp. Huntingdon was positioned to productively employ inmates. However, by the first year the facility experienced significant problems. In the summer of 1889, the region was hit by heavy flooding, followed in the next year by a long draught. During August 1892, near-catastrophe occurred when fire broke out in the brush shop. There was insufficient water to fight the fire so the building containing the repair shop, which also housed the carpentry shop, paint shop, drill room and tin shop, also went up in flames. As a result of these and other problems, the Pennsylvania State Board of Charities investigated Huntingdon. Investigation revealed an efficient labor system and high levels of inmate unemployment.
Further problems developed statewide with prison industry in the late 1880s when Pennsylvania’s administration of prison labor was restricted by legislation drive by labor organizations and politics. Restrictions on prison industry were applied to the kind of labor in which prisoners could be employed (prohibition of power machinery), and the amount of goods that could be produced (limitation on the number of inmates employed). An anti-convict labor law of 1897, known as the Muehlbronner Act, prohibited the use of power machinery and forbid the employment of more than thirty-five percent of inmates in any state or county institution in the production of goods for sale. The act ordered that no more than five percent of the total number of inmates could be employed in the manufacture of brooms and brushes and hollow-ware; no more than ten percent could be employed in the manufacture of any other kinds of goods, wares, or articles; and no more than twenty percent could be employed in the manufacture of mats and matting. The Attorney General rendered an opinion on this Act asserting that the law meant that five, ten, or twenty percent might be employed, but never the maximum of thirty-five percent. The Muehlbronner Act served to reverse industrial development by returning it to the handicraft and treadmill stage of industrial operations. This legislation almost completely destroyed industrial operations of the state penitentiaries and left little to be disturbed by the depressions of 1907 and 1913.
In response to industry problems resulting from the Muehlbronner Act, a prison labor commission was created by an Act of 1913. The commission was charged with inquiring into the advisability of amending the penal laws of the Commonwealth, to provide for employment of all inmates of all penal institutions, compensation of inmate labor, and utilization of inmate labor in the penal and charitable institutions of the Commonwealth. As a result of the commission’s efforts, another prison labor commission was appointed under the Act of 1915. This Commission was given authority over all prison workshops and was to determine the kind of industries and their locations as well as to direct the sale of inmate products. This act removed litigations regarding the percentage of prisoners who could be employed under the Muehlbronner Act through the provision that all inmates physically capable could be employed up to eight hours each day other than Sundays and public holidays. The Act also introduced the state-use system of industrial administration. The state-use system mandated that inmate produced goods were to be of service to the State in supplying and maintaining its various institutions instead of being available on the open market. While constituting a great advancement, the state-use system had one fetal defect. Whereas the law mandated that prison-made goods could only be sold to state institutions, the law did not require public institutions to purchase the products of prison labor. Therefore, during the mid-1900s when there was a period of extraordinary urban and industrial growth nationwide, industries under the state-use system were prohibited from selling inmate products on the open market. Although penal administration concentrated on developing and maintaining prison industries and convict labor in an effort to reduce the rising costs of incarceration, the restriction on product sales did not supply enough jobs for inmates and most of them were idle. During this time, Pennsylvania passed legislation providing for the addition of two facilities to the state correctional system.
The State Correctional Institution at Rockview, a rural penitentiary, was built in 1915. Governor John K. Tener stated, “It is desirable (that Rockview) be of modern design and so constructed in a rural district, so that the prisoners may be provided with useful employment in tilling the soil or otherwise.” Rockview was built on 6,790 acres with more than 1,800 of these acres reserved for field and garden crops.
Five years later, in 1920, the State Industrial House for Women opened (later known as SCI Muncy). In accordance with the industrial growth of this time period, the program focus at Muncy stressed homemaking and basic education. The original purchases of property for Muncy totaled 566 acres and the land grew to 798 acres by 1969. Included were 325 tillable acres on which Muncy developed a farm and truck garden, and 423 acres of mountainous woodlands in Lycoming County.
The need for an act compelling all state institutions to buy prison-made products was indirectly met by the Act of 1921. This act created the Department of Public Welfare, which was given control over all state institutions dealing with the “criminal, insane, and dependent classes.” Prison industries were reorganized under the Department of Public Welfare’s Bureau of Restoration. The Bureau was responsible to establish, maintain, and carry on industries. Although the Bureau was still mandated to sell manufactured articles solely to government institutions maintained by tax monies, this reorganization require that institutions under the Department of Public Welfare purchase state inmate products. The Bureau was also responsible for providing the necessary machinery and equipment to carry out industrial operations. Power-driven machinery was installed in the institutions, which lifted further restrictions imposed by the Muelbronner Act. Industries have been self-sufficient since this time. Shortly following this reorganization, John R. Wald, Superintendent of the Prison Labor Division in the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, patented a special die capable of stamping different numbers and letters on automobile license plates. Under Wald’s direction, the Industrial Reformatory at Huntingdon began to turn out Pennsylvania license plates on a prolific scale. Early in 1924 Wald announced that the prison produced 800,000 license plates with nearly 11,000 being manufactured daily. Wald left the Prison Labor Division to establish the Prison Consulting Service, known today as the John R. Wald Company. Years later, under Section 915 of the administrative Code of 1929, the Bureau was granted authority to establish an inmate work program. This program grew into what is known today as Pennsylvania Correctional Industries.
Also in 1929, Correctional Industries Graterford opened on what was once 1,715 acres of farmland. A work gang of 72 inmates was brought to the site from Eastern to clear land for construction. It was thought that such a rural location would not only make the institution self-sufficient in terms of its food needs but would also provide “a chance to train many of the convicts for farm life.” In the years following, a farm plan was devised for each institution. Plans involved the aggregate 9,000 acres of farm crops, 900 acres of vegetables, 500 acres of potatoes, 34,000 chicks, 1,200 tons of fertilizer, 2,400 tons of lime, and the planting of over 100,000 trees. Policies were also developed on the management of dairy cattle, swine, poultry, and horses. Efforts were under way to increase agricultural production.
In 1941, the Pennsylvania Industrial School at White Hill (known today as the State Correctional Institution Camp Hill) opened. The new White Hill institution consisted of 519 acres, with 380 of the acres allocated to farming. The institution has a large farm where swine and poultry were raised as well as a diary and truck garden. White Hill’s industries included furniture, coffee, and tea making. From the early 1930s until the mid-1950s there was no expansion of correctional industries. Whereas the post-World War II period was characterized by unprecedented growth in prison populations nationwide, the percentage of inmates employed did not increase. The state of stagnation increased discipline problems and caused unique inmate management challenges within the facilities.
In fact, beginning in 1953, riots erupted in two of Pennsylvania’s state prisons—Western State Penitentiary and Rockview. As a result, the Devers Committee was formed to investigate causes of these riots, including a complete review of prison industries by the John R. Wald Company, Incorporated. The Devers Committee prepared a report on causes of the riot and actions to be taken in response to the issues identified. One recommendation called for the development of prison industries, “We recommend that the plant potential be fully developed in the matter of prison industries. This may entail some new construction of plant operation.” Another recommendation called for the establishment of a Bureau of Correction charged with maintaining and controlling all statewide phases of correctional activity.
The Bureau of Correction was created in the Department of Justice and a Supervisor of Farms and Industries was appointed. From the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, the number of correctional industries expanded and the amount of sales increased dramatically, from approximately $2 million in 1952 to over $11 million in 1980. In accordance with this growth, the Bureau of Correction made an agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to expand and improve its educational and vocational courses offered to inmates. By 1975, Correctional Industries operated 24 manufacturing plants, three food-processing centers, six farms, a freight operation, and a data processing operation. However, this growth came to a swift halt as Pennsylvania’s prison administration was faced with significant challenges due to unprecedented growth in its correctional population starting in the early 1980s.
The total correctional population increased by 132% from 1980 to 1990. Concurrent with this growth in the population was the elevation of the Bureau of Correction to a cabinet level agency in 1984. The Bureau of Correction became the Department of Corrections and prison industries were elevated to the “Bureau of Correctional Industries.” The Department constructed and acquired a total of five facilities between 1980 and 1989—SCI Cresson, Frackville, Retreat, Smithfield and Waymart. The ability to program inmates became increasingly difficult as the inmate population increased at unprecedented rates. The goal of recognizing and treating each inmate, as an individual with individual needs could not be met. Instead of concern regarding which institution would best meet the individual needs of an inmate and where the inmate should be placed based on vocational skill-level, the question became “where is the bed space?” The majority of inmates remained idle, as industry expansion could not keep pace with the demands imposed by an increasing inmate population. As a result, Correctional Industries was a stagnant organization within the Department of Corrections for over a decade.
In 1988, the Bureau of Correctional Industries set up a reinvestment program to upgrade operations and a further revitalization was made possible through the commitment of Governor Tom Ridge and Secretary Martin Horn to “teach inmates to work” and reduce inmate idleness.
In recognition of these priorities came a renewed commitment from the Department of Corrections administration to the success of PCI.
A significant restructuring of PCI’s organizational structure in tandem with business-wide systemization, standardization, and centralization has allowed PCI to refine its focus.
Today, PCI is positioned to concentrate on operating as a business, which teaches inmates to work rather than operating exclusively as an inmate work program.
PCI recognizes that the success of the business determines the success of the inmate work program and strives to balance its dual mission—remaining self-sufficient while teaching inmates to work in Pennsylvania.