During her stay in Philadelphia in 1786-87 ANN HEAD WARDER described in her diary a sight that didn’t seem to disturb her very much.
3 mo. 30th. —The convicts here have recently been condemned to hard labor instead of execution, and now clean the streets. They have an iron collar around their neck and waist to which a long chain is fashioned and at the end a heavy ball. As they proceed with their work this is taken up and thrown before them. Their clothing is a mixture of dark blue and brown stuff; their heads shaved; they wear parti colored woolen caps, so that an attempt to escape would early be discovered. A guard accompanies each gang. At first the prisoners were much averse to this shameful exposure, and preferred death to it. Two things I think need regulating, suffering people to talk to them, and to prevent their receiving money.
As the states began to limit the number of crimes that warranted the death penalty they were faced with an increase in convicted criminals. Confining them in jails where they would often work at hard labor was one option. There was another: an experiment in Pennsylvania that involved both shaming and hard labor which were thought to be reformative. The Wheelbarrow Law was enacted in 1786; it required convicts to labor in the streets during the day, just as described by Ann Warder, and be housed in jails at night. Although the law was copied by other states it was soon deemed a failure. Fights broke out among the convicts and/or with the public; passersby jeered or cheered them.
In 1790, an addition to the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia was built based on a concept put forward by Quakers. Prisoners were housed in individual cells—formerly they had lived together in large rooms—where, in basically solitary confinement, they were expected to reflect on their crimes and repent. It was the first state penitentiary (from the Latin, meaning remorse or penitence) in the country, shown in the illustration in 1800.
“Extracts from the Diary of Mrs. Ann Warder,” 61, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. XVII, 1893, No. 1. For information about the Philadelphia treatment of convicts see Wheelbarrow Law. For information about the “reform” in Pennsylvania’s prison system see HERE. The illustration can be found HERE.