|The Joliet Prison Photographs|
On April 1st, 1969, I was sentenced to a term of from two to six years at hard
labor in the Illinois State Penitentiary, for possession of marijuana. By May
I had been transferred from the county jail in Rock Island to a diagnostic depot
next to Joliet Penitentiary in what once was the women's division. I was first
placed in a three-man cell, approximately six feet by nine feet, which had been
designed to hold one woman. A month later, I was housed in one of the round
panopticon cellblocks at Stateville Penitentiary, Joliet's sister prison, where
I had been assigned as an inmate photographer in the Bureau of Identification.
The B of I maintains mugshots, fingerprints, and criminal records of convicts
from the early days of the prison. In a corner of the basement darkroom in a
few drawers of an old filing cabinet were several hundred glass-plate negatives
which documented Joliet prison around the turn of the century. I spent most
of my two years working in these darkrooms, producing a blend of public relations
and evidence photographs for the prison administration. The photographs were
used in penal publications and were occasionally released to news agencies to
illustrate the events and social progress of the prison.
The photographs in this exhibit were made by inmate photographers, although
their identities still have not been determined. Prison records from 1915 indicate
that there were five convicts who listed their previous occupation as photographer.
Reports also document that there was a room in the prison designated as the
"Photograph Gallery" and that the current warden, Edmund M. Allen, had an annual
budget for photographic expenses of almost $1000, approximately three times
greater than that of previous administrations. Many subjects illustrated by
these prints, such as the Honor Band, did not exist prior to Allen's administration.
These public relations photographs were taken by an anonymous series of inmate
photographers under official direction. It was not necessarily their purpose
to create a clear understanding of what prison is and what it does to the minds
of those who live there, but it was their purpose to illustrate the progressive
changes which were taking place during an era of penal reform which lasted until
the beginning of World War I, when public and political attention was diverted
to other areas.
By 1818, in preparation for admittance to the Union, the inhabitants of the
Illinois Territory had written a constitution and elected both a governor and
a legislature. Article VIII, paragraph 14, of the constitution incorporated
concepts of a new philosophy of reformation through punishment that had been
promoted in the East: "All penalties shall be proportioned to the nature of
the offense, the true design of all punishments being to reform, not to exterminate
mankind." At this time, punishments for criminal offenses consisted of the pillory,
flogging, public hangings, or internment in crude local jails.
The principles of the new reforms, which were deeply rooted in centuries of
Christian doctrine, were a continuance of the European "workhouse" philosophy,
in which evildoers were forced to work out the wages of sin. Under the leadership
of Doctor Benjamin Rush, the Pennsylvania Quakers became successful in their
attempts to abolish public punishment; in 1790 Pennsylvania built the world's
first penitentiary-the Walnut Street Jail. It was the first prison to combine
a method of cellular confinement with solitary work and the reading of scriptures.
This concept of purification through suffering, innate to Christianity, was
being deeply imbedded in penal thought. The system of almost total solitude
was more than could be handled by many prisoners. When New York built its first
prison at Auburn, it varied the Pennsylvania System so that the men were isolated
in the evening but had congregate work areas in the day. The silence rule prevented
any communication during congregate times. Both of these models had adopted
the work ethic and reformation through suffering and penitence; hence "penitentiary."
Since the concept of imprisonment as a deterrent to crime was fundamental to
the current movement, prison architecture had to be formidable. The structures
kept a low, massive profile and usually featured solid stone construction with
castellated walls, towers, and turrets. Auburn was designed with castellated
gothic architecture and became the standard for prison design for the next one
In 1831 construction began in Alton, Illinois, on that state's first penitentiary.
Situated on a long, sloping hillside overlooking the town, it appeared as a
medieval domain with stone walls, towers and turrets. Visitors to the city thought
that the prison looked strangely out of place. Although it had only twenty-four
one-man cells, each six feet by three feet, it was not long before there were
two men in each cell. More cells were added as needed until, in 1853, there
were 277 men at the seven-acre site.
Since the state did not want to be directly involved in the prison business,
it leased the convicts and the entire facility to a lessee who would manage
the prison as he saw fit and use the convicts as a labor force. The concept
of using convicts as a source of slave labor is typical to a mercantile economy,
but would never survive in an industrialized society. John Reynolds, the governor
who proposed and promoted the Alton site, said, "I have never performed a public
service that has afforded me more satisfaction than my efforts to aid in establishing
the penitentiary, and to adapt the laws to the system. It is too brutal and
barbarous to whip, crop, and brand a man in the pillory, if it can be avoided."
By 1847 there was growing dissent among state citizens about conditions in
the prison. In February, 1847, Dorothea Dix, a well-known New England prison
reformer, visited the Alton prison and reported her findings to the legislature.
Each man was shackled with an eight-foot chain from his waist to his ankles,
and one side of his head had been shaved to make him easy to identify. There
were no bath facilities, and two men were required to live in a damp, 2 unheated
stone cubicle. Complete silence was required at all times. Violations of the
rules were punishable by flogging. The prison hospital was located in a damp,
unventilated basement; its records indicate that punishments varied from five
to forty-five lashes. Importantly, there was no moral guidance in the form of
religious instruction-no chapel, no chaplain. Christian doctrine is fundamental
to the penal concept; this was a serious flaw. Also, Illinois had the only prison
in the United States where the inmates had to eat standing up; seats were finally
installed that year. The men worked from sunrise to sunset and slept on beds
made of straw with coverings of blankets and buffalo robes. Reynolds wrote in
1855, "The opinion is received as correct, that solitary confinement to hard
labor has gone further to reform convicts, and make them useful members of society,
than any other system yet devised by the experience and wisdom of man."
The Alton site was terrible for a prison, since the prison was constructed
on a long hill overlooking the Mississippi River. Spring rains would cause constant
erosion in the prison grounds-holes would appear in the walls and inmates would
disappear. In the 1850s most prisoners came from Chicago, and so in 1857 the
legislature approved the construction of a new penitentiary at Joliet. The site
is located over a layer of limestone so deep as to make tunneling impossible.
Again, the Auburn style of castellated gothic was chosen, along with the Auburn
style of cellblock. Boyington and Wheelock of Chicago were chosen as architects.
One building with a stockade around it was constructed by civilian workers
in 1858 from limestone quarried at the site. The first fifty-three prisoners
were moved from Alton to this cellhouse on May 22, 1858, so they could be used
to construct the walls and buildings. By 1860, all the inmates from Alton had
been moved, and construction was finished in 1869. Alton was used for Confederate
prisoners, deserters, and spies during the Civil War; it was later named Uncle
With the industrialization of Chicago and other cities, the population of Joliet
prison grew, along with its reputation:
A front view of the prison is quite imposing, the main or center building
is the warden's house, which contains the offices, the guard hall, commissioner's
rooms, dining rooms, and officer's sleeping-rooms, the whole occupying four
stories, the fifth or top story being utilized as a female prison. On either
side of the warden's house extend the great cell-house wings, each three hundred
feet long, giving the prison a frontage toward the south of nearly 1,000 feet.
The cell-houses contain 900 cells, with a capacity of 1,800 convicts. Once when
the prison became over-crowded there were 1,900 prisoners confined here, but
the erection of a new prison at Chester, in 1878, relieved this condition of
affairs, and now the average prison population remains about 1,500.
The exterior of the prison impresses the visitor, and at first sight suggests
one of these castles of the olden time, those romantic structures that withstood
the ancient archers and warring elements for ages. The battlemented walls, upon
which blue-coated men with Winchester rifles under their arms patrolling the
platforms that surround the rugged but ornamental towers help to make up the
romantic picture which is finally dispelled when the eyes rest upon the iron-
barred windows, proclaiming that it is a prison.
The cells are arranged on corridors, fifty on a tier, and each block of cells
stands in the center of the cell-house with a passage-way clear around, twenty-five
feet wide. The cells are made solidly of stone and iron, not a particle of woodwork
being used in their structure. They are, therefore, perfectly fire-proof, and
it is almost an impossibility for an inmate to cut his way out of them. Each
cell is eight feet deep, four and one-half feet wide, seven feet high, and is
arranged to hold two men. A double iron bunk-one bed above the other-stands
at one side of the cell. The beds are provided with husk mattresses, straw pillows,
sheets and heavy woolen blankets.
There is nothing luxurious about the furnishings of a cell. A shelf at the
rear end contains a few books and papers,. bottle of vinegar, small tin boxes
containing salt and pepper (for all meals are eaten in the cells), a couple
of small stools, a bit of a mirror on the wall, and down in one corner near
the iron-barred door stands a granite-ware wide-mouthed crock for holding drinking
Under the bed is a couple of small wooden wash-buckets; this list of articles
constitute the only furniture; excepting that each cell is brilliantly lighted
with an incandescent electric lamp which burns until 9 o'clock every night.l
The policy of leasing the prison to the highest bidder continued until 1867,
at which time the state appointed three prison commissioners to oversee the
operations. In an attempt to keep the prisoners occupied and the system self-sufficient,
the labor of the men was still leased to the highest bidder, who was obliged
to supply all materials, machinery, and technical guidance and supervision for
the construction of the products. Because of the many injustices involved, the
lessee system was abolished in 1886. A major factor in this change was that
the industrialized society had developed labor unions, which felt threatened
by the competition of the slave labor force. Because the large number of idle
inmates caused serious disciplinary problems, the prison went, in 1894, to a
system whereby industry products were made for use only in state institutions.
By the late 1800s, the prison population was swelling. Its cells, which had
been designed in the Auburn tradition of one man per cell, usually contained
two men. Steel mills had expanded to within two hundred feet of the prison,
so that during the day the grounds were shrouded in smoke, which caused one
warden to resign and move to Kansas for his health. In 1898 there were thirty-two
deaths in a total prison population of 1257 men-21 were due to tuberculosis.
This same year the prison commissioners, who oversaw prison operations, condemned
conditions and requested the governor and the legislature to construct a new
prison. A decade later, in 1907, a committee was formed to consider construction
of a new prison and in August, 1916, a site was chosen in Lockport, Illinois,
on 2200 acres of ground overlooking the Des Plaines River, for the construction
of Stateville Penitentiary. By 1925 the walls and the two round panopticon cellhouses
Stateville is massive: the 35-foot-high and 6750-foot-long wall encloses 65
acres and can hold as many as 3200 men. The first four cellhouses were unique
in this country, constructed on the panopticon design credited to Jeremy Bentham.
Originally, Stateville was to have eight of these cellhouses, but a diminishing
economy forced the construction to stop at four. To increase the capacity of
the prison, B house was constructed; it was the largest Auburn cellblock in
the United States and was built in spite of information showing this type of
construction, especially on such a scale, to be poor design for effective security
and discipline. In 1913 Edward Dunne, a Democrat, was elected governor. Prior
to this he had been a lawyer for fourteen years, judge on the Circuit Bench
of Cook County from 1892 to 1905, and mayor of Chicago from 1905 to 1907.
In 1913 Dunne had been studying prisons throughout the country. He was known
as a lenient judge and felt that the criminal justice system should not be one
which destroys men but one which helps them. His papers indicate that the Colorado
and Arizona prison systems were among those which he studied. To make truly
progressive changes that would have a lasting effect on the prison system, he
needed a warden who was not just sympathetic to his cause but also progressive
by nature. It is traditional in Illinois politics for incoming governors to
make new political appointments in the prison system.
By the time of his death, Robert Allen, who had been warden at Joliet prison
from 1894 to 1897, had accumulated a sizable fortune, which he left to his children.
His son Edmund Allen later served as police magistrate in Joliet for eight years,
and then was elected mayor in 1912. In April of 1913 Governor Dunne appointed
him warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary 4 at Joliet to replace E. J. Murphy,
a Republican. Allen was progressive in every sense of the word. His wife, Odette,
not only supported him in his work but was a considerable influence in establishing
the "honor system" at Joliet. With this system, inmates were graded on their
conduct. Starting in a middle grade, they could be elevated by continued good
conduct or could be demoted by bad conduct. Punishments could be handed out
with the occurrence of offenses, but the honor system required continued good
conduct as a method of obtaining better job assignments and privileges. Allen
discussed his attitudes and changes in a biennial report to the governor in
This is an era in penal progress. It has come slowly, but with a certainty
which leaves no doubt as to its permanency. Crude, cruel, and barbarous methods
which were almost universally in vogue at the beginning of the present generation
have been or are being superseded by methods which are founded upon principles
of humanity and square dealing.
The man inside is being given a chance to prove that he possesses at least
some qualifications which determine character and purpose. For my own part,
I am glad it is here. I rejoice at the thought that I am in a position to contribute,
so far as my own abilities will permit, toward the creation of a new system
that must eventually lift the man who has sinned and atoned for his sin from
the shallows and perils that heretofore have surrounded and destroyed him.
I have always believed in the theory that there is some good in every man;
that there exists some influence which will appeal to his heart and reason.
When I was chosen warden of this penitentiary, I found that the man who gave
me my appointment entertained views similar to my own. His views, perhaps, were
broader than mine. His philosophy is founded upon a bigger and more generous
conception of life and its amenities. He believes in the Golden Rule. All his
life he has stood ready to extend the helping hand to the man that is down and
out. As a judge his decisions were tempered by a spirit of humanity and mercy.
I told him about the things that I had been considering in connection with my
plans to regenerate the penitentiary at Joliet.
I told him that I believed the lives of the men confined therein could be rendered
happier and that hope could be re-awakened in their hearts by relieving them
of some of the barbarous exactions and ruthless discipline to which they had
been subjected for many years. I told him that I would endeavor to lift the
fifteen hundred men who would be under my direction from dead levels of silence
and unbroken routine which breaks the hearts and spirits of men and sends them
out into the world without courage and without hope. He assured me that every
idea I had discussed with him had his unequivocal endorsement and approval and
that he would stand behind me while I was endeavoring to put them in force.
Not only the people of the State of Illinois, but the Nation are fortunate
in the fact that Edward F. Dunne occupies the governor's chair at Springfield.
Those among us who believe that the old way is passing, that a new and better
era is dawning in penology, are fortunate indeed in having so eminent a friend
and counsellor as Governor Dunne. His earnest cooperation in the work of regeneration
in the penal institutions of Illinois is certain to bear results that will be
far reaching in their effects on penological work in years to come. The work
that has been started under his auspices will progress far and will leave an
uneradicable impression which will serve as a guide to the generations which
are to come hereafter.
Public sentiment is slowly but surely grasping the new thought and stamping
it with approval. The people know that the barbarities of the nineteenth century
will not be tolerated in the twentieth century. The people are becoming insistent
that those who are atoning for their sins committed against society shall be
treated with decent consideration and taught not that they shall expect the
blackjack or the bludgeon, but that if they will observe the fundamental rules
of honor and manhood within their enforced environment, their opportunities
outside will multiply.
This is the underlying theory of my work at this penitentiary. You cannot maltreat
men, you cannot starve men, you cannot force them to live in surroundings that
are unhygienic and unsanitary; you cannot break their bodies in performance
of tasks that strain their powers to the limits of endurance and then expect
to receive in return their confidence and cooperation. You must feed them an
abundance of healthful food; you must clothe them so that their sense of self-respect
will not be entirely violated by contemplation of their rags; you must provide
healthy outdoor recreation; you must see to it that the cell houses in which
they are compelled to spend most of their waking and sleeping hours are clean
One of my first innovations was the granting of one hour a day for recreation.
Every hour of the day from 8 o'clock in the morning until 5 o'clock in the afternoon,
excepting the mid-day hour, there can be found about two hundred men playing
base ball, pitching quoits, and some other games that are congenial to themselves,
on a field set apart for that purpose within the prison walls. When I published
my recreation program a number of the older employees of the prison who had
come down from the period when recreation in any form was unheard of told me
frankly and with sincerity that I was undertaking something which was potentially
perilous. I told every man that if he believed I was wrong and did not care
to take the chance of testing the plan with me that he could resign and step
aside. I told them that I wanted around me only men who were in complete sympathy
with my plan. I received no resignations. Notwithstanding that the space in
which two hundred men have to play is less than two acres in extent and is cluttered
with overhead pipes, buildings, and materials, and that the base lines of the
various diamonds overrun each other; that the fielders both in and out, in various
games play in identical territory; that collisions and mixups are of hourly
occurrence, not a single prisoner has been taken from the recreation field for
violation of the rules of the prison. I am more proud of this record than any
other thing that has come into my life. It has vindicated my hopes; it has proved
that the man inside, when given a chance, knows how to take advantage of it.
It has done more than this-it has practically wiped out the punishment records
of the prison. Where previous confinements in solitary would average upwards
of seventy-five a month, they now run about thirty a month and appear to be
decreasing all the time. The men are happier; and some of them told me they
would rather be deprived of their lives than of the outdoor recreation period.
The pallor that once marked them as men from the inside has given way to tan
and ruddy health. They look more like men and they act more like men. I cannot
help believing, and I think you gentlemen will concur in the thought, that men
coming from an environment that is lightened by healthy and enjoyable physical
exercise are more apt to be self-respecting, more self-reliant, than men who
are crushed by ruthless discipline.
The man inside at this penitentiary is no longer bound by the rule of silence
in talk. If he desires to address a fellow inmate it is his privilege to do
so. He can exchange conversation with his comrade in line of march, and that
privilege has not been abused. The men have not neglected their work for the
purpose of talking. The keepers in the shops have reported from day to day since
the new rule went into effect that the men have observed it in about the same
spirit and manner as men would in occupations outside. I believed when I prepared
and promulgated this rule that it would have precisely that effect. I believed
the man inside would not care to waste his own time nor the time of the State
in useless conversation, and that if he felt he could address a guard or a fellow
inmate when the spirit moved him that he would do it in precisely the same manner
as one employee of an industrial shop would address a-fellow worker. The results
of these reforms or innovations, or whatever you may chance to call them, have
been provocative of good discipline. There is no doubt on that score, because
the records of the prison prove my statements. I do not want it understood that
there has been any relaxation of vigilance, nor do I want it understood that
we have reached a point in our work where we believe the millennium in penology
has arrived. I appreciate that there are desperate and ruthless men among our
prisoners. I appreciate, moreover, that the abnormal conditions which are inevitably
created by confinement within the walls of a prison, especially such a prison
as this one, breed plots against authority and discipline. But I can state with
a spirit of self-rejoicing that the discipline was never better in the history
of this prison than it is at the present day. I need hardly tell you that this
is a condition more than satisfactory. The man inside at this penitentiary is
beginning to understand what it means to be placed upon his honor; he understands
precisely as we understand it outside the prison. It means to him just as much
as it means to us outside. It means freedom from unneccesary espionage, or freedom
from espionage that changes and injures one's self-respect, and freedom from
ruthless barbaric punishments. He performs his work in a better spirit; he performs
more work in a better spirit, and he performs more and better work. This fact
has been demonstrated by the output of the various shops. When I introduced
an hour's recreation for every man here, I naturally concluded there would be
a diminution of production in the shops in proportion to the time lost by outdoor
play. There was in fact no loss in production. The men not only worked faster,
but better. The output of the shops today is of better quality than at any time
in the history of the prison. The man inside is beginning to take an actual
personal interest in his work and pride in its performance. That is something
I thought would never come to pass in a prison. 6 I pray that the spirit of
performance such as this will grow among these men, because if it goes with
them outside of the walls it must necessarily become a bulwark for their redemption
On Saturday, June 19, 1915, Warden Allen and his wife, Odette, were preparing
for a short trip to the hot springs in Indiana, but since her dress was not
back yet from the dressmaker, Odette decided to wait until the next morning
and encouraged Edmund to proceed without her. Shortly after six the next morning,
a fire was reported on the second floor of the warden's house. Some guards,
along with convicts from the volunteer fire department, managed to break down
the door to Odette's bedroom and extinguish the flames. The coroner reported
that her skull was fractured by a water bottle which was found next to the bed
and that although she was unconscious from the blow, she was killed by the smoke
and flames which engulfed her bed. The fire had been started by a container
of alcohol spread over the bedding. A trustee by the name of "Chicken Joe" Campbell,
who had been appointed by Edmund a few months earlier as Odette's personal servant,
was charged and convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to death.
The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Dunne. Warden Allen
continued to support the honor program and begged others not to judge all men
by the actions of one man. He resigned several months later. This event and
the increasing involvement by the United States in World War I brought an end
to the era of progress. Reform would not be attempted again for many decades.
Power and justice are not the same thing. Since the founding of this nation,
criminal law and its application have been used to maintain economic dominance
by a ruling class. The first citizens, in order to vote or hold office, had
to be white male property owners. At the time of Edmund Allen's administration
in 1915, women's suffrage had not been granted, and to this day the Constitution
fails to guarantee equal rights for all citizens.
Formally speaking, criminal law creates crime by defining criminal acts-acts
of aggression or violence against another person and damage or theft to another's
property. Although society needs to be protected against the truly criminal
act, there are thousands of laws which attempt to regulate morality and human
conduct by creating criminal sanctions. In 1970, one-third of all arrests were
for public drunkenness, at an annual cost of approximately $100,000,000. Creating
criminal laws to control social problems causes crime where it does not exist,
creates criminals out of citizens, and diverts the badly needed resources of
the criminal justice system from dealing with the protection of individuals
and their property. It is neither effective nor proper to regulate personal
conduct through criminal law. Social problems which come under criminal sanctions
are narcotic and drug (including alcohol) abuse, gambling, disorderly conduct,
vagrancy, and various forms of sexual behavior.
Criminal law is selectively applied, although research proves that crime exists
in large percentages at all levels of society. Ramsey Clark, in Crime In America,
reports that in major American cities "two-thirds of the arrests take place
among only about two percent of the population." On an average day in the early
1970s there were over 1.3 million people in the correctional system. Forty percent
of them were unconvicted and were merely too poor to make bail; as many as sixty
percent of these would be released without a conviction. Citizens in the upper
two-thirds of the social structure manage, for the most part, to escape the
consequences of the criminal justice system. These people are better prepared
to defend themselves and have more resources than members of the lower third-the
quality of defense is often affected by financial resources. The criminal justice
system and society tend to be lenient with the more affluent offender and not
to choose imprisonment as a form of punishment.
Prisons were designed to perform four functions: punishment, deterrence, isolation,
and rehabilitation. Punishment is society's revenge and serves two purposes:
it creates suffering and it increases the "cost" of the punishment and, consequently,
the relative "value" of deterrence. Prison has always been thought to be an
effective deterrence to crime, even though there is the evidence of centuries
to the contrary. Isolation is effectively achieved by imprisonment, but most
criminals do not create a direct threat to society and require no isolation.
The interesting and frightening aspect of prisons is that their primary function
is that of deterrence. Although the mechanisms of the system are focused upon
the criminal, the severity of the punishment is for the benefit of those on
the outside who might otherwise consider criminal acts. By increasing the cost
to the criminal, prisons are meant to deter others from crime; yet substantial
research shows that most persons who commit crimes never consider the cost-most
don't even know the penalty for their particular crime.
There are two injustices here. One is that punishment against an individual
is imposed, not for therapeutic value, but to affect others who may have criminal
intentions. The second is that the principle of deterrence does not work. The
concept of sending one person to prison as an example to others is an archaic
home remedy. The amount of rehabilitation being accomplished is still minimal
but is showing improvement. To expand rehabilitation programs and to build more
prisons implies a continued belief and support for an ineffective system.
It is important to understand that the criminal justice system is disproportionately
directed to those who are least able to defend themselves. American law is the
extension of the influence of the ruling classes in an industrialized economic
power. This is not democracy, but capitalism; crime, in part, is the result
of the choice to maintain this structure of wealth and power.
In the one-act play "No Exit," by Jean-Paul Sartre, three people are in a room
which they cannot leave. As they begin to realize that they are not just in
a room but have died and gone to Hell, they become increasingly miserable with
each other's presence. Finally, Garcin says to. Estelle and Inez, "There's no
need for red-hot pokers, Hell is-other people!"
1 S. W. Wetmore, Behind the Bars at Joliet: A Peep at a Prison, Its History
and Its Mysteries (Joliet: J. 0. Gorman and Company, 1892), p. 20-22.
2 Edmund M. Allen, Warden, Report of the Commissioners of the Illinois State
Penitentiary at Joliet For the Two Years Ending Sept. 30, 1914 (Springfield:
State of Illinois, 1915), p. 7-10.
Cell with Two Male Convicts, ca. 1915.
"The two wings of the penitentiary contain 900 cells in which to take care of 1,200 or more
prisoners. It is necessary, therefore, to put two prisoners in many of the cells, which are only
seven feet long, seven feet high, and four feet wide; and we feel that we can present the
matter no more forcibly than to quote from our last biennial report and say that:
When one thinks of two men spending never less than fourteen hours each day during six
days of the week, and on the seventh day nearly twenty-one hours, in a space so reduced, and
with a slop bucket in the cell for their use in responding to the call of nature which no care can
prevent from being offensive and pestilential in every sense of the word, he is compelled to ask
what excuse the great State of Illinois can offer for compelling the management of this
penitentiary to so deal with men who are required by law to serve sentences here that they
must eat, rest and sleep in quarters so contracted, so repellant, and so utterly unfit for the
purpose, that their very existence is a disgrace to the State that permits it.
We are not believers in any system that would tend to pamper prisoners or to make the
prison so attractive that confinement therein would have no terror for evil doers, but we are
believers in a system that will preserve at least the health and strength of the inmates so that
they can perform the daily tasks allotted to them here, and be enabled to leave the institution in
such physical and mental condition that they will have no excuse for not going to work as soon
as occupation can be found for them.
One visit to the cell houses during the night time, a few breaths of the atmosphere coming
from them, is all that is necessary to convince the most skeptical that the half has not been told
by us, and we here and now enter our solemn protest against the continuance of such a system
of herding men together to the detriment of their physical, mental and moral natures.
"We are perfecting a plan which will enable us, if not to increase the number of cells, to
bring those we have under the best and most modern sanitary conditions, and when the cost
has been ascertained, we will lay the matter before your Excellency, with the hope that you
will unite with us in an effort to persuade the Legislature of the wisdom, not to say humanity,
of the undertaking.
"It will certainly be a matter of pardonable pride to any administration that an improvement
so just in its conception, and so humane in its spirit, was carried to a successful conclusion
under its guidance."l
'Everett J. Murphy, Warden, Report of the Commissioners of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet For the Two Years Ending Sept. 30, 1900
(Springfield: State of Illinois, 1901), p. 11-12.
Chaplain with four convict assistants, ca. 1915.
The Christian church has had a major influence on the development of penal thought.
During the late medieval period, the church controlled a large number of clergy, monks,
serfs, and servants. The canon courts which ruled over these people operated on the
ideologyof purification through suffering, but they were against the shedding of blood. They
found that solitary confinement was an excellent means of retribution, since it caused
tremendous suffering without attacking the body. Since most subjects lived in monastic
quarters, it was easy to confine individuals to their rooms, and as a matter of course, rooms
were added for this purpose. Since monastic orders had large numbers of houses in a variety
of settings, some of the locations were less desirable than others. Eventually, they came to be
used as punitive facilities. Because church dogma placed emphasis not on physical needs
but on preparation of the soul for the afterlife, church prisons had few comforts; some did
not even provide light for the prisoner, and those that did, provided little. Solitary cellular
confinement provided the conditions for penitence. The feeling of total loss could best be
accomplished in complete mental and physical confinement.
Numerous waves of prison reform movements passed across the United States. In 1847,
during the third wave of penal reform since 1790, Dorthea Dix, in a message to the Illinois
General Assembly, stressed that there was no religious or moral instruction in the prison, a
serious flaw in the design.
Because of pressure from religious groups, most states incorporated various degrees of
rehabilitative programs. Products of these efforts were chapels, chaplains, libraries, and
schools; at Joliet, all of these services were under the direction of the chaplain.
Penal institutions, as an extension of public policy, learned to incorporate religious
authority into prison ceremony. Chaplains often sit on disciplinary courts, and an execution is
always attended by a religious leader. Besides being of comfort to the condemned, his
presence implies a sanction from a greater power. The death cells at Joliet were on the
second floor of the solitary detainment building. A corridor connected to the adjacent chapel
building, which also contained the electric chair.
Unidentified Warden, ca. 1915.
Wardens are administrators whose primary function is the warehousing of people who
have been determined to be a threat to social order. Their central concern is the security of
the institution. The appointment of wardens in Illinois has been under the authority of the
governor and the head of the department of corrections. Traditionally, with every new
governor it was customary to have a change of command throughout the major posts in the
penal system. Officals were replaced, not because of qualifications or differing veiwpoints,
but because of differing political affiliations.
States looking for wardens saw the penal system as an extension of the police and judicial
agencies; consequently, they looked for wardens among policemen and judges. Later, many
more officials would work their way up through the ranks of the prison administration.
Warden Edmund Allen, 1913 to 1915, was a typical model. His father, Robert S. Allen, had
been warden from 1894 to 1897. Edmund was twice elected as police magistrate for the city
of Joliet and was elected mayor in 1912. In 1913 he resigned to accept an appointment from
Governor Dunne to be warden at Joliet. He was highly educated and wealthy-in this sense,
he was different from previous wardens-and his ideas were much more progressive than
most concepts of his time.
Wardens who have worked their way up through the ranks tend to be more stringent;
prison is hard on everyone.
Prison Honor Band in front of main entrance, ca. 1915.
Prison architecture has been more influenced by trends and policy than by need and
practicality. When the penitentiary concept was created by the Pennsylvania Quakers in
1790, there were no architectural models. Cellular confinement was basic to American penal
thought, and there were many models for the construction of cellblocks, but an actual model
of exterior design did not exist. Architects adapted ideas from industrial sites, church
prisons, and castle fortresses. It was felt that the institutional structure should be formidable
so as to create fear in the hearts of those who entered and especially to put fear into the
hearts of those who were contemplating a criminal act. The prison, as a structure, was
supposed to represent the fear and pain that existed inside-punishment as deterrence.
In general, the structures were overbuilt so that the most dangerous of men might be
safely isolated in any part of the prison. Bars were thicker than needed, while the structure,
which had massive cornices and narrow slits for windows, was made to appear low and
domineering on the horizon. Not just by concept, but also by reality, the convict becomes
totally isolated by the structure; the imprisonment is both physical and mental.
Styles most ofen used were Greek Revival, usually Doric, or a castellated style with gothic
detail. Joliet prison featured the more ornate gothic style. Although most of the prison was
very austere, the warden's house was very ornate, with fine woodwork, high ceilings, and
Collage, ca. 1915.
The population of the prison varied over periods of time; usually, those sent to prison felt
forced by social/economic controls to seek unlawful solutions to their problems. People in
prison usually represent the lowest level on the economic ladder, but their characteristics
would change with current conditions and immigration policies.
In 1900, out of a total population of 1257, reports show that 1027 were white males, 59
were Negro males, 27 were white females, 15 were Negro females. The nationalities of
foreign convicts listed in the order of frequency, were German, Russian and Polish, Irish,
Scandinavian, and English. The dominant occupation was laborer. It cost 11.25 cents per
day to keep a man in prison.
In 1892, out of a total prison population of 1445, there were 40 deaths, 26 of which were
caused by tuberculosis, the most prevalent disease, with pneumonia and typhoid fever being
next. In 1900 there were 19 deaths out of a population of 1257, with only 7 deaths being
caused by tuberculosis. The dominant crimes committed were those which were traditionally
committed by the poor: burglary, larceny and robbery.
The average time served before parole was four years, one month, and twenty-seven days.
In 1892, 819 days were spent by men in solitary, while in 1914, under Edmund Allen's
administration, 53 days were spent in solitary.
July 4th celebration, ca. 1890.
Punishment and discipline are at the very heart of the penal concept, especially as it
regards reformation. Methods of punishment throughout the United States varied and had
many different names, which in themselves could place fear into a convict: "Shower-bath,"
"crucifix," "yoke and buck," "the widow," "the Sing-Sing slide," "the humming-bird," "the
hole," "the dark cell," "the bull-ring," and "the cat." Not all of these tortures were used in
Illinois, but some were-flogging, "the bull-ring," and "the humming-bird" (electric battery
applied to the spine). In 1867 Illinois outlawed the use of the lash, but the "dark cell" and the
"bull-ring" were still used, and solitary confinement became a popular form of punishment.
In the later 1800s "solitary" consisted of handcuffing a man to the cell door in a standing
position during the working hours and then letting him down at night. His only meal
consisted of two ounces of bread and eight ounces of water. In 1898 the "dark cell" and the
"bull-ring" were abolished at Joliet.
Discipline takes as many forms as there are ways to control behavior. By giving an inmate
a variable sentence, say from one to ten years, his time in prison can be increased or
decreased according to the opinions of the parole board. Convicts who have trouble with the
system will do more time. In this manner, parole boards have the power of judge and jury,
except that the convict has very few rights. Another means of controlling behavior is the
"good time" law, which was passed in order to give prisoners with good conduct additional
time off their sentences. The intention was to institute another source of power over the
future of the prisoners and promote good behavior. It had a tremendous morally and
politically repressive force over prisoners.
The disciplinary officer was usually the work assignment officer. Work assignments are a
part of this discipline. With a good assignment and an early parole, a convict's time could
pass very quickly or could become very long and hard.
The keepers occupy high stools, where they can overlook every man in the
shop. "A convict," said Keeper Wilcox, "is like a rubber ball; he will stay as long
as you press him down, but flies up the instant the pressure is removed. He
must feel the pressure all the time. 1"
l S. W. Wetmore, Behind the Bars at Joliet: A Peep at a Prison, Its History and Its Mysteries, J. 0. Gorman and Company, Joliet, 1892, p.