Eight Fun Facts

Jerry Sandusky Sentenced: Eight Facts About Pennsylvania Prisons

From the birthplace of the term ‘penitentiary’ to the 13-inch TV for inmates, here are eight things about the Pennsylvania prison system where Jerry Sandusky is heading.

After Tuesday’s sentencing it is clear that Jerry Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison. The final question looms, where? Anywhere in Pennsylvania, and he should count himself lucky. In the state that founded the American prison system—and then virtually wrote the book on its reform—he is likely to get better treatment than anywhere else in the United States. As the PA prison system awaits its newest lifer, here are eight fun facts.

1. Pennsylvania created the American prison system, initially overflowing with alcohol.

The Walnut Street Jail, the first prison in America to use work details and have individual cells, was located in the heart of Philadelphia. Situated directly behind Independence Hall, it consisted of a large U-shape building with oversized rooms—intended to hold the maximum number of prisoners. The shared rooms proved disastrous: disease-ridden, filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous. Rape was frequent, crime ubiquitous, and death from starvation common. The guards cared little for the well-being of the inmates, and instead sold them alcohol, which they gladly bought over food. Inmates were constantly either drunk or in withdrawal. It was an appalling beginning for the prison system, but change was on its way.

2. Philadelphia coined the term ‘penitentiary’—and set the tone for prison reform.

Repulsed by the conditions at Walnut Street and convinced crime was a “moral disease” that could be cured, prominent Philadelphia physician—later nicknamed ‘the father of American psychiatry’—Dr. Benjamin Rush, set out to reform the prison system. Along with the Pennsylvania Prison Society—a newly formed activist group in PA—he worked to turn Walnut Street into a homelike setting where prisoners could reflect on their own crimes, experience spiritual penance, and undergo rehabilitation. The method would come to be known as “The Pennsylvania System” and the institution “a penitentiary.”

3. The Eastern State Penitentiary revolutionized the prison system—boasting amenities better than those of President Andrew Jackson.

Although the reforms at Walnut Street were successful, the population of Philadelphia and its criminals was exploding. Dr. Rush knew that one, large, central penitentiary with individual cells was vital to fulfill the mission of the ‘Pennsylvania System.’ So began the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, a building with one central hub and seven wings of individual cellblocks. The facility was unlike any prison in the world, boasting amenities, such as flushing toilets, central heating, and individual showers. At the time of its construction in 1822, it was considered a “technological marvel,”—its comforts even exceeding those of President Andrew Jackson at the White House.

4. ‘The Pennsylvania System’ attracted visitors from around the globe, including Charles Dickens.

The Eastern State Penitentiary blazed a new trail in the world of prison reform. Prisoners were given individual cells with a Bible, several meals a day, and the freedom to make shoes or weave in their spare time. Soon “The Pennsylvania System” was a worldwide phenomenon, and famous admirers from across the globe journeyed to Philadelphia to study it. Although 300 prisons across the globe would later copy the model, upon his visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wasn’t impressed. “I am persuaded that those who designed this system ... do not know what it is they are doing ... I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” In the end, he was right. Solitary confinement was infused with community activities that still exist today.

5. Pennsylvania played host to the most infamous criminal in history: Alphonse ‘Scarface’ Capone.

Jerry Sandusky, now infamous in the media, joins the ranks of many notorious Pennsylvanian prisoners. Among the most famous is Alphonse ‘Scarface” Capone, American gangster and murderer who spent a relatively luxurious eight months at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, or “Park Avenue,” as he called it. The arrest—his first on record—occurred in 1929, when he was caught carrying a concealed weapon. The mobster’s deluxe individual room was the picture of comfort, complete with an oriental rug, authentic furniture, and a cabinet radio.

6. Pennsylvania prisons today: the top three candidates for Sandusky.

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Out of the 26 prison facilities for men in Pennsylvania, not all would be suitable for Sandusky. The roughly 6,800 sex offenders in Pennsylvania are scattered throughout the state. Among the top contenders to house Sandusky is Laurel Heights—a facility for aged inmates that can treat severe medical needs (such as mental illness). There, he’d be joining the likes of several capitol felons, including former state House Speaker John Perzel and House Democratic Whip Mike Veon. Another probable route is to Waymart, a lower-security prison in the state’s northeastern corner. If Dottie Sandusky gets lucky, he’ll end up at Rockview, a state prison only a few miles from the Sanduskys’ home.

7. PA prison inmates take full advantage of their freedoms—for Sandusky, that could mean Penn State football.

As the birthplace of prison reform—Pennsylvania prison inmates enjoy some of the best treatment in the United States reformatory system. While he may face threats and isolation from his peers, he will be given the same freedoms as other inmates. His day will include work, leisure, and communal recreation time—all of his choosing. If he wants, he will be able to purchase a 13-inch television for his room, at the price of about $275. While he will not have access to more than 15 stations, it is doubtful in PA that he’ll have any trouble finding Penn State football. In his spare time he can read books, watch movies, play a musical instrument, and even coach a team. He’ll be permitted to purchase cigarettes, read magazines, and even write a book (although never money gaining).

8. Families of Pennsylvania prisoners receive a need-to-know packet.

The Pennsylvania prison system takes great care to make sure that inmates’ families are well informed and get their questions are answered. Sometime in the next few weeks, Dottie Sandusky will receive a 68-page packet, which families of all inmates in Pennsylvania are provided. Among the guidelines is a section titled “Married to Someone in Prison,” which outlines how to cope with a spouse being in prison. One suggestion is that you and your spouse, “Share a common interest, such as reading the same book or watching the same television show.” Among its other details is an explanation of mental-health counseling, how to send money orders, and the hotline to report sex abuse of inmates.