Eastern State Penitentiary
A Brief History
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia PA
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
A BRIEF HISTORY
In the 1770s,
an, Englishman, John Howard became aware of and was scandalized by the abusive and degrading
conditions in his country's jails and prisons. Between 1773 and 1790, he visited various penal institutions in England and Europe
and wrote careful accounts of their construction and administration that were widely read and influential. He called
for, among other things, the separation of all inmates at night;
Eastern State Penitentiary embodied Quaker ideas about the nature of man and the redemptive powers of solitary reflection and penitence. Members of non-conformist sects had long opposed capital punishment and had, since the colonial era, championed imprisonment as an alternative. In 1821, after many years of lobbying from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded by Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved funding to build Eastern State Penitentiary. The new prison was approved to confine two-hundred fifty inmates and with a cost $780,000. 3
The philosophy guiding the intent of Eastern State Penitentiary presented many challenges for the architects. Unlike earlier, unsuccessful attempts at maintaining solitary confinement, the building design would have to prevent communication between inmates in order to prevent the transmission of moral contagion. Unlike Auburn, the cells would have to accommodate both the prisoner and provisions for his or her work equipment. Since the prisoners were to remain in their cells for the whole of their terms, each cell had to be equipped with water, rudimentary plumbing, and heat. Prevailing theory held that prisons needed adequate ventilation to prevent "gaol fever," which had plagued earlier institutions. And the planners wanted an imposing building that would inspire fear and respect among the citizenry. Upon completion, Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest building in America and possibly the most expensive. 2
Designed in 1821 by Philadelphia architect John Haviland, Eastern State is located just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The prison's stone cells are a haunting testimony to a failed vision which arose from a humanitarian concern for the treatment of prisoners and spiritual notions about the cause of criminal behavior. The Visionaries of Eastern State believed that solitary confinement and work would heal the soul and allow time and opportunity to reflect on a life of crime and to repent of past sins. 3
Upon entering the prison the founders experimental plan unfolds. At the time, prisons in America were squalid congregate settings where convicts of all ages, male and female lived in settings of neglect, filth and social disorder. Eastern was conceived of the dream that a prison should provide discipline to individuals who failed to acquire discipline and socially acceptable behaviors early in their life. Within the controlled environment, it was believed that prisoner's would be able to reform themselves through solitude, work and penance, thus the new name for America's prisons; penitentiary. 3
The Pennsylvania Plan took the concept of rehabilitation through discipline one step further, in addition to protocol of rehabilitation through imposed discipline, the inmates would also be placed in separate or solitary confinement, isolating them from other undisciplined souls.
In April of 1829 legislation specifying "separate or solitary confinement at labor" was passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature. Plans were developed to prohibit all contact between prisoners. Masks were fabricated to keep the inmates from communicating during rare trips outside their cells. Individual cells were equipped with "feed doors" and exercise yards to prevent all contact between inmates, and to minimize contact and communication between inmates and guards. The prison opened in October 1829. 3
The prison's rules specified that convicts should "be examined
by the clerk and the warden, in the presence of as many overseers as can conveniently attend, in order to become
acquainted with his or her person and countenance, and his or her name, height, age, place of nativity, trade, complexion,
color of hair and eyes, length of feet, to be accurately measured and that these shall be entered in a book provided
During the design phase of Eastern, various architectural styles were considered including a panopticon, a circular building with a central observation area that allows the use of the "eye of power,". Instead the Eastern design did not permit guards to observe inmates for it used the power of the invisible. Upon arriving at Eastern prisoners were hooded before being led to their cells. Each cell measured 8x12 feet and was provided with a flush toilet, central heat and a small completely contained exercise yard. An 1831 report explained: "No prisoner is seen by another, after he enters the wall. When the years of his confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave...and the prisoner con go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous deeds are unknown." The Pennsylvania Plan was rooted in monastic architecture and in the solitary life of Carthusian monks. Inmates at Eastern were provided Bibles, were expected to work and some received regular visits from members of he Philadelphia Prison Society. Advocates of the Pennsylvania System saw it as transforming a criminal calling into a religious calling. When Dickens visited Eastern he felt the system was infernal, precisely because of its reliance on the unseen. Prisoners were invisible to each other and to the world. There were no scars and the effect of isolation could not be observed. Dickens thought public floggings preferable to this "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain." 3
In 1831 work was completed on Block 3, the last of the original single - story cell blocks. Work also began on Blocks 4, 5, 6 and 7, all two story designs to accommodate the increasing number of convicts. The first female prisoner is also received in 1831.
claims of conducting a noble experiment, unsullied by base concerns for money and humane in its treatment of
inmates, just five years after its opening the state investigated charges of abuse of prisoners, misuse and embezzlement of
funds, and immoral practices of officers and agents of the prison. Testimony revealed that prisoners were allowed out of
their cells to wait on the administrative staff, to work unmasked on tasks within the prison, or to do work that earned money
In 1858 10,000 tourists visit Eastern State Penitentiary, the most in a single year.
Concerns about crime and disorder in the lower classes continued to grow; prison leaders from other states openly
recognized the failure of both the Auburn and the Pennsylvania systems to deal with the problem. They called for changes in
policy that would have a positive impact on prisoners.
Block 12 was built in 1911 and is the other three story block.
In 1925 construction began on Cell Block 13, a three stories structure. The Penitentiary, intended to hold 250 inmates now held 1,700 inmates.
Cell Block 13,
consisted of 10 solitary cells and is located between blocks 2 and 10.
Block 13 was called the "Klondike" by the inmates, it is
In January of 1970 Eastern State Penitentiary transferred most inmates to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. The Prison was used as a city prison for a short period and closed in 1971.
1. Eastern State Penitentiary - Web Site
2. Forged Images - Web Site
3. Perrott, Mark and Kirn, Hal (1999). Hope Abandoned, Eastern State Penitentiary. Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, United States
(1971). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, United States
Rothman, David (1971) The Discovery of the Asylum Little, Brown & Company
Lewis, W. David (1965) From Newgate to Dannemora Cornell University Press
McKelvey, Blake (1977) American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions Patterson Smith
Dickens, Charles (1842) American Notes (Chapter VII: "Philadelphia, and its Solitary Prison)"
Johnston (1973) The Human Cage: A Brief History of Prison Architecture
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Eastern State Penitentiary - Official Web Site
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