State Correctional Institution-Rockview is a century-old penitentiary on state Route 26. Its designation as the site of executions and its more than 70 years as a prison farm have established its place in Pennsylvania’s penal history.
One of 24 state correctional institutions, the 4,269-acre facility has a capacity of 2,032 adult male inmates in maximum- and medium-security housing. It averages about 700 full-time employees.
In 1911, legislation was passed and signed to purchase land and build the prison at a cost not to exceed $1.25 million. State lawmakers were spurred to action by the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions at Western Penitentiary, built in 1827 in Allegheny County.
Construction began in 1912 and was completed in 1915. The site between Bellefonte and State College totaled 6,790 acres, with more than 1,800 acres for field and garden crops to be grown by inmates. The imposing stone-and-concrete main building sits on a hill overlooking Route 26.
Under 1915 legislation, Rockview was to be a maximum-security prison replacing both Western and Eastern, which was built in 1829 in Philadelphia. By the 1920s, however, Rockview was a branch of Western, operating as a medium-security prison farm with a capacity of 1,012 inmates.
The housing at Rockview was a sharp departure from Western’s cramped cells, putting a large number of inmates in an open dormitory. Officials believed that its rural location and surrounding mountains would prevent escapes. Although a small number of inmates tried to escape over the years, most were quickly found.
Between 1915 and 1962, 350 inmates, including two women, were executed in the electric chair at Rockview. In June 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court followed suit in September, ruling the state’s death penalty procedures unconstitutional. After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the state did so in 1978 when the legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a revised statute.
A 1990 state law replaced electrocution with lethal injection, and the electric chair was moved to storage at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg. The prison renovated its old hospital building into an execution complex, and three men were executed by lethal injection between 1995 and 1999.
The prison farm program was started to teach prisoners agrarian skills. They cultivated land for their own food supply; surplus was sold, with profits going to the state. In 1999, the state ended its three prison farm programs, at Rockview, Huntingdon and Graterford, after several years of financial losses.
At Rockview a minimum-security program, Forestry Camp, continues the concept for a maximum of 72 inmates nearing the end of their sentences. They manage a 2,500-acre forest for timber and firewood, and tend a nursery, greenhouses, a vegetable garden and a 600-acre cattle farm, all on prison property.
In 1953, major riots at Western and Rockview prompted an investigation and a report that led to the development of a prison industries program, as well as the establishment of a state Bureau of Correction, which became the Department of Corrections in 1984.
Rockview participates in the Correctional Industries program, which began a wood furniture factory there in 2008 to serve state and state-subsidized agencies and nonprofits. It also is part of the Community Work program, which provides inmate crews to help the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, nonprofits, other prisons, and federal and local governments. Rockview offers academic education through the GED level and vocational education in various programs.
The 1978 movie, “On the Yard,” was filmed at Rockview and involved staff and inmates. The screenplay about prisoner life and scheming was written by Malcolm Braly, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Department of Corrections. www.cor.pa.gov (Accessed May 12, 2021).
Barnes, Harry Elmer. “The Evolution of American Penology as Illustrated by the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania.” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1921, 191-212.
Fenton, Michael. “Rockview SCI,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Spring 2010. https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/feature-articles/rockview-sci (Accessed May 17, 2021).
“Rockview program gives inmates ‘meaningful jobs to do,” Centre Daily Times, June 14, 2017.
First Published: May 20, 2021
Last Modified: September 30, 2021