The Lancaster County Prison 

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John Haviland, Architect, 1851

The Lancaster County Prison which now stands on King Street in downtown Lancaster, was formally opened on September 12, 1851. The prison, a replacement for the many smaller prisons and holding cells in the city, was an innovation in its time, both architecturally as well as administratively. This prison was modeled after the new "penitentiary" prison style which was popular and used in such places as Eastern Penitentiary and smaller Pennsylvania prisons. This system tried to remedy many problems of mistreatment and neglect rampant in prisons at that time. Although it did not receive much press, the prison was an exciting addition to Lancaster , as residents were able to enjoy its grounds as a park of some sorts. This is not surprising since the building, designed by John Haviland, a Philadelphia architect, was supposed to resemble a castle in Lancashire, England. Perhaps this fascade was to be expected of Victorian Lancaster county, but it is important to see just how innovative this really was. This brief newspaper article describes the new prison in detail and also explains the uniqueness of this new imposing structure.

"The New Prison of Lancaster County"

We had the satisfaction, about two years ago, of presenting to our readers a ground plan and description of a new prison then about to be erected at Reading, for Berks county; and we expressed our belief that the citizens of Lancaster, whose attention had already been turned to the subject, would not allow themselves to be excelled by their neighbors. It will be seen by the accompanying well executed front view that our expectation was well founded. The wealth and enterprise of our citizens have been devoted to the construction of an edifice, well meriting the attention and thanks of the State. So active have been the measures of the Architect, Mr. Haviland, that the building, which was commenced in the month of March last, is already under roof, and will probably be in a condition to receive prisoners by the end of the next summer.

Before giving the details of this building, it is proper to repeat a caution contained in our notice of the plan of the Berks prison, viz; that the performance of duty on the par of the commissioners of our counties is not secured by any external finish, nor by any mere semblance of orderly interior arrangement. The interior of the prison is the important subject; and unless that be planned and executed with strict regard to the character of our penal system, and to the humane treatment of convicts, as well as to the convenience of officers, the lavishing of money upon exterior decoration can serve only to bring into clearer relief the misconduct of the local officers. In Lancaster, as in Berks county, the authorities have kept in view the primary considerations; and at the same time they have sought to give embellishment to their seat of justice. Hence the cost of the prison is vastly greater than would have been necessary on the ground of naked utility. As was remarked in the article above referred to, the "heating, ventilation, bathing, exercise, visitation, instruction, employment, and supervision which are proper, can be obtained in the less imposing enclosure of stone walls, such as are now seen in most of our county prisons."

There has been a practical error in some quarters in confounding the expense of construction in such cases as those of Lancaster and Berks, with what is necessary to make a good county jail, and the economical views of some of our friends in the interior have been shocked at the bare mention of the outlay authorized at Reading. It has been assumed that the peculiarities which render the Berks prison worthy of imitation are those of a "penitentiary," and that they are extravagant precautions for a "county jail." Hence the old forms of constructions have been adhered to; and county commissioners have thought to acquit themselves of their public duty by following the antiquated and pernicious examples of a former pernicious generation. Hence we have seen very recently the erection of jails at Hollidaysburg, in Blair county, and at Bloomsburg, in Columbia county, which are not only planned in neglect of the improvements which have been made in the mechanical details bearing upon health and convenience of administration; but in palpable disregard of the abundantly declared penal policy of the State. In those places, even the feature of security is wanting, as would be obvious to any practiced eye; and escapes of prisoners have given experimental evidence of the fact. We have seen in the Hollidaysburg prison, a promiscuous assemblage of male prisoners in the new rooms, and have heard a shout of laughter there, raised by an obscene jest of a crazed inmate. In neither of the jails referred to, is there any architectural precaution against intercourse of prisoners with each other, except such as may be obtained by a few large rooms built for common use.

When we remember that even in the communities in which the separate mode of confinement has been objected to for long terms, there has been comparatively little objection to it for houses of detention, such as our local jails; and that in some places it has been recommended for such prisons, by avowed friends of congregate discipline, it is melancholy that in our own Seate, any of the local authorities should have fallen into such practical errors as have been adverted to.

Whether the local jails should in any case be made, by law, penitentiaries for prisoners under long terms of sentence, is a question of grave character, upon which we express no opinion at this time; but there can be no reasonable doubt that the county prisons should at least be freed from those causes of evil which have heretofore been so prolific of mischief to the character of their inmates, and to the operation of the discipline in the State penitentiaries. The counties of Northampton and Montgomery are about to erect new prisons, and we earnestly hope that the commissioners will take such a course as is demanded by the humane and safe policy of our penal system.

In those buildings which were erected for the separate system, before the art of prison construction had received its latest improvements, there are inconveniences which may serve to enlighten us upon several particulars; and these are so manifest that they cannot be disregarded, except through the most culpable neglect. Superior as are the jails of Dauphin and Chester to those upon the old plan, the are nevertheless greatly inferior to the recent designs. In the Chester prison, we understand that the inspectors contemplate extensive changes in the mode of heating and ventilation. We trust that these will be promptly executed, after the necessary pains shall have been taken to examine the most approved methods.

No outlay, however, even upon the best plan of construction, will suffice without discreet administration. The arrangement for warmth, ventilation and separation may all be rendered fruitless, and even hurtful, by injudicious management. The precipitancy, the neglect, or the parsimony of officers may easily defeat the practical success of the wisest architectural designs. Even the exercising yards may become sources of evil through a defect of supervision. We trust in the management of the Berks prison there will be no oversights in this respect. The commissioners have procured for the county a fair opportunity for the exercise of the official ability in the administration. Want of care, skill, or liberality, on the part of the inspectors, may render all the provisions unproductive. The addition of a small item to the annual sum of expenses, too frequently outweighs considerations of public good, and of individual benefit to the prisoners.

The subjoined description is made clearer by the plan annexed. Without entering into any minute criticism, our readers will agree with us that Lancaster has very creditably performed her share of duty.

The site of the Lancaster county prison was selected by the architect. It is immediately west of the reservoir, and at the eastern extremity of the city. The ground is much the most elevated in or about Lancaster, and possesses most of the other requisites for a prison location. The front has been made to front the Philadelphia Turnpike or King Street, as no proper site could be obtained fronting the railroad. It has a southern exposure. The facade is two hundred feet in length; is castellated Norman in its style; composed of four woters, two large circular ones in the centre, and two octagonal ones at the extremes. Between the circular towers is a curtain wall, pierced by a gateway; and behind these towers are two others, of square form. From the center of this group rises a polygonal tower, which serves as an air shaft; and attached to which is a stair tower. The extreme height of this tower is one hundred and ten feet; that of the circular and square towers is fifty feet, and the wing walls are twenty-two feet in height. The other features of the front will be understood by reference to the wood cut which we give. The area enclosed by the prison walls is in the form of an irregular hexagon, of which the extreme length from east to west is 500 feet; and the depth from south to north is 300 feet. The ground plan is composed of two of the radiating blocks introduced by Mr. Haviland into our prison construction. These, when completed, will be capable of containing 160 prisoners; but at present only one block is to be constructed, to contain 80 separate cells, in two stories of 40 cells each. The cells on the ground floor have exercising grounds attached, 33 feet in length, with an open iron railing at the end, between which and the principal enclosing wall is a space of above 22 feet.

The keepers house contains in the basement, (which is two-thirds above ground) a bake-house, laundry, drying-room, and large fuel and provision cellars, surrounded by a spacious area. The principal floor has on the right of the entrance an office, and on the left the keeper's sitting room. Under the side porch are a bath and a water-closet, for the use of the prisoners on their entrance. A shoot conveys their soiled clothes to the laundry.

On the first floor of the central tower is the observatory, from which all the rooms in the front building are directly accessible, and which commands all the cells in the prison. Immediately in the rear and over the laundry is the kitchen; and over the bake-house is the dining room for the keepers. On the second floor there is a large store-room for manufactured goods and raw materials.

Immediately in the rear of the keeper's house are the gas works, for the manufacture of gas consumed in the Institution. The warming, ventilation and construction of the cells, are like those of the Berks county prison, with the exception of the doors, which are of a more convenient design; being made to slide into the thickness of the walls, and furnished with peculiar safeguards.

The cost of the structure is $102,000; in which are included the gas works and fixtures, (the gas being introduced into every cell;) and a large culvert for the drainage of the building; which is to extend upwards of 1000 feet from the front.

Lancaster Examiner and Herald, Wednesday, June 5, 1850 (from the Penna. Journal of Prison Discipline)

Compiled by Stephanie Cullinan '97, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, PA