The Lehigh County Prison has occupied a site in center-city Allentown for 187 years. The first county lockup was built in 1813 at the southeast corner of Fifth and Linden streets and served not only as a detention center for the lawless but also as the center of county government until the courthouse finally opened in 1817. Some 52 years after the prison opened, a Grand Jury was convened to study the operation and deemed that a new prison was needed.
Thus, the original prison, deemed "a gloomy structure" by one city dweller, was replaced by a looming, red sandstone fortress that stood at Fourth and Linden streets for 125 years. Construction of that facility began in 1867 under the watchful eye of Allentown's city engineer, Gustavus A. Ashbach. The Civil War era facility held 40 cells, each designed to hold one man. The fortress itself featured walls 45 feet high. Spartan-like cells contained a bed, a sink, a table and a stool.
The old prison was also the site of a number of executions, the first in 1894 when Harry Johnson was hanged for the murder of his 4 year-old daughter. The last execution took place in 1910 when George Schaffer was hanged for the axe murder of a Philadelphia traveling salesman.
The facility reflected the county's commitment to the security and well-being of the community. It was on the cutting edge of 19th Century criminal justice practices.
Time and spiraling crime rates pressed the county into building additions to the original structure. one in 1908 and another in 1981. The efforts, however, proved ineffective in the long run and by 1986, the prison was well worn from use and over-crowdedness. Inmates filed a lawsuit in Federal Court claiming conditions in the old prison violated their Constitutional rights. The legal battle that ensued lasted nearly four years before the County and inmates entered into a consent decree. That settlement mandated construction of a new prison which finally opened its doors for business in May 1992.
The new Lehigh County Prison is a state-of-the-art, direct supervision facility with a capacity of 1,352 inmates. Corrections Officers work inside the housing units where they have direct contact and interaction with inmates. The maximum-security facility houses inmates prior to their adjudication in the courts as well as those serving time on county charges. Lehigh County Prison also detains prisoners for the Federal Government.
The facility was re-named Lehigh County Jail in 2014.