The original colonial-era prison was authorized by legislation in March of 1797 to
be built on a six and one-half-acre parcel in Lamberton, now a section of the
City of Trenton bounded by Cass, Third and Federal Streets and Route 129.
Construction was completed toward the end of 1799 and inmates began to occupy
the building that was modeled after the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia and still
sits in a niche of the west wall of the prison complex.
Reflecting the Quaker influence
of the time, these words were carved in stone over the front door:
Labor, Silence, Penitence.
The Penitentiary House,
Erected By Legislative
Richard Howell, Governor.
In The XXII Year Of
That Those Who Are Feared
For Their Crimes
May Learn To Fear The Laws
And Be Useful
Hic Labor, Hic Opus.
first state prison, a three-story stone structure, was based upon the
'congregate plan,' which allowed for the mixing of all classes of inmates
regardless of sex, age, mental condition or type of crime committed. Inmates
mingled freely during the day and were confined to cells during the night.
30 years of mixing all types of prisoners in one building, politicians and prison
administrators concluded the congreate system was unworkable. Conditions in
the old prison had gotten so bad that in his annual report of 1832, Governor
Peter Vroom (for whom the Vroom Building on the grounds of Trenton Psychiatric
Hospital is named) made special mention of it. He pointed out that the one
building housed 128 prisoners, overcrowding it so badly that pardons were given
just to reduce the inmate population. Also, an escape attempt in August of
1832 had left one prisoner dead and one seriously wounded, causing the public
to become concerned about conditions at the prison.
the early years of the nineteenth century, Americans were starting to look at the
prison issue, and a great debate ensued over which of two distinctly different
models of penitentiary was better: the Pennsylvania or the Auburn model. The
Pennsylvania approach traced its origins to the belief evolved among early American
Quakers that removing an offender from all temptations, keeping him isolated
from other prisoners, and substituting a steady and regular routine, including
reading the Bible, would reform him. Solitary confinement, although under
humane conditions and in large cells, was the primary method of incarceration.
Under the other model, the Auburn system (named after Auburn Prison in New York
State, later to be the site of the first execution by electrocution in the
U.S.), the inmate worked in absolute silence in strictly supervised communal
workshops during the day and was locked in his cell at night.
Vroom's report, the legislature appointed a committee in 1833 to look into New
Jersey's prison problem; they recommended a new facility be constructed. After
considerable debate, the committee members and the legislature opted for the
Pennsylvania model, and the architecture of the new prison reflected that
philosophy, especially in the size of the cells; they were larger (in Trenton's
prison, 10 feet high, 7 feet wide, 15 feet deep) than in the Auburn model
(usually about 7 feet high, 5 feet wide, 8 feet deep).1
John Haviland, who had designed Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia and would
later do the Tombs in New York City, was given the design contract. The prison
was started in 1834 and inmates were put into north hall (2-wing in the current
numbering system) in October of 1836. The other cell block, south hall (now
4-wing), was also started in 1834 and finished in 1838.
the 1835-38 prison was completed, the older colonial-era jail was converted to
a state arsenal, a function it served for nearly a century. When the prison
walls were extended to form the 'big yard' in the early twentieth century, a
jog was built in the twenty-foot-high wall to accommodate the old
prison/arsenal, and it was later converted into its current use as the warden's
1845 the population had increased to 178. A number of cells had been converted
to other uses (storage, laundry, baking) so some inmates had to share cells,
a practice that violated the philosophy of the Pennsylvania system. In 1847,
cook house hall was built to house the laundry and baking areas and to free up
cells, but by 1858, because of the increases in the inmate population,
two-thirds of the cells had two prisoners and some had three.
in response to the shortage of cell space, the Pennsylvania model of solitary
confinement was officially switched over to the Auburn (workshop) system with
inmates coming out of their cells during the day to work in shops and being
locked in only at night. In 1860-1861, a third housing wing, radiating out
from the front house core, was built between the north and south halls. This
third cell block was so cramped and the cells so small that it was converted in
1919 to a mess hall on the first level and chapel/recreation area on the
1869-1870 a women's wing (now known as 3-wing and 5-wing) was built onto cook
house hall. In 1870-1872 east wing was built (this is now 1-left and 1-right);
at the same time a large workshop building was constructed outside of the south
wall so that, for a period of about 12 years, many inmates were working outside
of the prison walls and returning to the housing wings at night.
(east) view of the prison circa
1890. Note that 7-wing (below) hasn't yet been built. The Egyptian facade,
the steeple and the central guard tower would all be removed by the 1940's.
1884 the walls were extended to encompass the workshop while at the same time
(1885) another sizable shop building was attached to the earlier one, the
extended wall enclosing both structures. In 1895-1896, 6-wing was built,
connecting to the old cook house hall and the women's wing; the hospital was
also built adjacent to one end of 6-wing within the next year (1897).
last of the housing units, 7-wing, was built in 1905-1907. By this time,
little room remained inside the prison walls to build a structure big enough
to house 340 cells, so the outside wall on the northeast corner of the prison
was knocked down, and 7-wing was built fronting directly onto Third Street. Along
with the wings housing the cell blocks and the large shop buildings, a number
of other smaller buildings for shops, boiler houses, cookhouses, laundries,
warehouses and shower facilities were jammed into the 17-acre complex.
The only housing wing fronting directly onto a street with no intervening
1907, the responsibility for executing criminals convicted of capital crimes
was transferred from the county jails to the state prison when the death house
and death chamber were built and the electric chair was installed. Up until
that time, executions had been carried out on gallows in the county jails.
is the order in which the housing wings were built with their current
designation and use:
Jersey State Prison, Trenton: Housing Wings Built 1836-1907
Gutted and rebuilt as Auburn Cell Block 1877-1878.
Converted from housing to dining hall and auditorium 1919.
Women removed to Clinton in 1913.
After the West Wing (originally called 3-wing) was remodeled into the
dining hall/auditorium area, a wall was built in the Women's Wing, dividing
it into 3-wing and 5-wing. From 1960 until the abolition of the death
penalty in 1972, 3-wing, consisting of three tiers, nine cells each
tier, was used as death row. Condemned men were walked through 6-wing on
their way to the death chamber during that period.
in the century, around the time of the Civil War, New Jersey prison
administrators changed their minds about how to 'reform' criminals, and some
large work areas, separate buildings, were built within the prison walls. These
buildings housed several types of shops on the grounds (e.g., tailor shop, print
shop, shoe repair) most supervised by civilian employees and intended to teach
inmates a trade. Inmate labor, State Use Industries, was also used to supply
certain goods, like clothing and food, to the prison and state hospital system.
Inmates also made all of the state's license plates.
American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record
1 The two best
sources for the history and architecture of the New Jersey State Prison,
Trenton are 1) Barnes, Henry Elmer. A History of the Penal, Reformatory and
Correctional Institutions of the State of New Jersey, ( reprint of the author's thesis for Columbia
University, 1918). New York: Arno Press, 1974; and 2) Wolf, Gary. The New
Jersey Penitentiary at Trenton: A
Report Prepared for the Division of Building and Construction, New Jersey
Department of the Treasury; With a History of the Prison. Heritage Studies, Princeton, NJ, August, 1979. Barnes
concentrates on the history of the state's prisons with an emphasis on penology
issues and the economics of state-use industries while Wolf focuses on the architectural
history of the Trenton complex in support of having the prison designated on
the federal register as a Historic American Building. Both sources are
available at the New Jersey State Library in Trenton.