What is the Separate System?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 January 2020
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The separate system is a form of prison design and philosophy that seeks to enhance the reform process of prisoners through isolation and lack of social interaction. This system was primarily used in constructing a number of prisons in which each prisoner was to be contained in a separate unit, effectively placing each prisoner in solitary confinement. The isolation was further enhanced through a number of methods used to strip a prisoner of his or her former identity. This separate system was intended as a way to ensure that criminal subcultures and attitudes could not flourish in prisons.

Also called the “Pennsylvania system” due to the use of the separate system in the Eastern State Penitentiary near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this system was often integrated into the design of a prison. A prison built using the separate system would typically look much like part of a wheel that might be used on a bicycle or carriage. There would be a central office that would act as a hub for prison guards and wardens, and from this hub a number of wings would extend like the spokes on a wheel. Each of these wings housed the individual cells in which prisoners would be incarcerated by themselves.


The separate system was designed to reduce interaction between prisoners as a way to prevent the formation of criminal organizations within communal prison environments. This design was also thought to expedite reformation of prisoners by keeping each prisoner isolated and giving him or her time to reflect on what he or she had done. In order to further achieve these goals, prisoners in a separate system prison were only referred to by a number, never by name, and were allowed almost no contact with other prisoners. Even when outside of their cells, during exercises, they would often exercise in individual areas that kept the prisoners from each other.

These individual exercise areas were not always practical and so many prisons that used the separate system would allow prisoners to exercise together wearing hoods that covered their faces. The prisoners would often be attached to a rope that kept each prisoner apart from each other, and were expected to remain silent while exercising. Even during religious services, prisoners were allowed to vocalize by singing only, and were seated in cubicles that allowed the chaplain to see them, but they could not see each other. The separate system has influenced the designs of many modern prisons, though increased numbers of prisoners has made constant isolation impractical.


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