A SHORT HISTORY OF TRENTON STATE PRISON

 


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
Authority.
Richard Howell, Governor.
In The XXII Year Of
American Independence
MDCCXCVII
That Those Who Are Feared
For Their Crimes
May Learn To Fear The Laws
And Be Useful
Hic Labor, Hic Opus.


The 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.

After 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.

In 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.

After 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

Architect 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.

hen 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 residence.

By 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.

Partly 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 second.

In 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.

Front (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.

 

In 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).

The 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.

7-Wing: The only housing wing fronting directly onto a street with no intervening 20-foot wall.

 

In 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.



Following is the order in which the housing wings were built with their current designation and use:

 

New Jersey State Prison, Trenton: Housing Wings Built 1836-1907

Originally

Now

Built

Current Use

North Halla

2-wing

1836

Housing

South Hall

4-wing

1836-1837

Housing

West Wing
(3-Wing) b

Chapel/Rec

1860-1861

Recreation/Mess Hall

Women's Wingc

3-Wing/5-Wing

1869-1870

Offices/Housingd

East Wing

1-Wing
(1-left/1-rignt)

1870-1872

Housing/Lockup

6-Wing

6-Wing

1895-1896

Housing

7-Wing

7-Wing

1905-1907

Housing

a Gutted and rebuilt as Auburn Cell Block 1877-1878.

b Converted from housing to dining hall and auditorium 1919.

c Women removed to Clinton in 1913.

d 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.

 

Later 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. 

 

Historic 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.