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Eastern State Penitentiary

A Brief History

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia PA







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;
and, during the day, the separation of men from women and serious felons from petty criminals; the introduction of sick wards and infirmaries; the prohibition of alcohol; and the institution of rules governing cleanliness and conduct. His work was a direct influence on the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons which was formed in1787. The Society petitioned the legislature for changes in laws and changes in treatment of offenders that eventually led to the first penitentiary at Walnut Street Jail, Philadelphia. The ideas inspiring humanitarian reforms were in accord with Quaker theology, which held that "the light of God" resided within everyone. Many Quakers were influential in the reform movement; almost half of the Society members were Friends.

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
for that purpose together with such other natural or accidental marks, or peculiarity of feature or appearance, as may serve to identify him or her, and if the convict can write, his or her signature shall be written under the said description of his or her person."

After being interviewed and given prison clothes, the new convict was taken, with a hood placed over his head, to his cell. The English writer, Charles Dickens, later described this hood, used to mask the identity of the prisoners, as a "dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world."

Once in the cell the prisoner was informed of the rules: "1st, you must keep your person, cell and utensils clean and in order. 2nd, you must obey promptly, all directions given to you, either by the Inspectors, Warden, or Overseers. 3rd, you must not make any unnecessary noise, either by singing, whistling, or in any other manner; but in all respects preserve becoming silence. You must not try to communicate with your
fellow prisoners in adjoining cells, either from your own apartment, or during the time you are exercising in your yard. . . . You must apply yourself industriously, at whatever employment is assigned you; and when your task is finished, it is recommended that your time be devoted to proper improvement of your mind, either in reading the books
provided for the purpose, or in case you cannot read, in learning to do so. . . . Be at all times, in your intercourse with the officers of the Penitentiary, respectful and courteous, and never suffer yourself to be led astray from your duties, by anger or revengeful feelings. 8th, observe the Sabbath, though you are separated from the world, the day is not the less holy."

With these rules the prisoner was locked into a cell where he would stay for the whole of his sentence, alone except for the occasional visit from a guard, the "moral instructor," a member of the prison society, or,
perhaps, a dignitary touring the prison. Work involved crafts such as shoemaking or weaving, or, if a prisoner had experience in the building trades, he was employed, alongside paid laborers, in the construction of the remaining cell blocks of the prison. Inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary were permitted no contact with family or friends, no news of events outside the prison, and each was allowed a mere hour a day of solitary, outdoor exercise-a period frequently shortened, in practice.

Problems with the heating and ventilation meant the cells were often unhealthily, damp and cold, or stifling hot. The design of the plumbing system left waste in the pipes, frequently forcing prisoners to breath tainted air.

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.

Despite 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
for officers.

Investigators uncovered the use of severe and abusive punishments against prisoners. The "Water Bath," the "Dark Cell," and the "Iron Gag" were among the punishments-some would say tortures-used on disruptive convicts.

The investigation of 1834 offered the first evidence that the prisoners found ways to communicate with each other through notes and rapping on the pipes.

Lax enforcement of rules for silence and isolation continued throughout the 1840s and '50s and included the practice of pairing prisoners to work together to learn a craft or trade until, by the end of the 1860s, the system of separate confinement had been abandoned in all but name.

The principal attraction of the congregate system, which virtually all other prisons employed after the 1840s, was its use of convicts for productive and profitable labor. This was the beginning of the industrial age in America; the congregate system allowed prisons to organize the labor process on an industrial model. Consequently, most prisons in the 1840s to the 1860s employed their inmates in shops and factories constructed on the prison grounds. Private contractors leased the prisoners' labor, supplying the materials and supervision for production in the prison shops.

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. 

Reformers believed that confinement practiced in traditional prisons made inmates less able to integrate into free society upon release. According to the new ideas, prisoners were not, as Enlightenment thinkers had believed, free moral agents, needing only rational deterrents and opportunities for reflection. They were flawed individuals, the products of inadequate families and immoral urban influences. They needed not punishment and penitence but active reformation, guided by Christian values and the emerging sciences of human behavior.

The primary inspiration for changing American prisons came from the "Irish system," where prisoners could work their way through various stages of less restrictive confinement, eventually achieving a conditional release or parole. That system had two advantages. First, the incentive of more lenient conditions would inspire good conduct among prisoners;
second, prisoners received instruction and training in the ways of civilized society. 

Block 12 was built in 1911 and is the other three story block. 

In 1913 The Pennsylvania System of confinement with solitude was officially abandoned at Eastern State. 

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
an example of how solitary confinement was used for punishment in the twentieth century instead of reform as was the case in the nineteenth. The State of PA was not aware of Block 13's construction and inspectors then required the prison to knock down the walls between the cells (which are very small with no light) due to "cruel and unusual" nature. Later, the prison would create "the hole" underneath Block 14. Again the state did not know about the "hole" and did not authorize its use which was for punishment.

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

Foucault, Michel. (1971). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, United States

Friedman, Lawrence. (1993) Crime and Punishment in American History, United States

Johnston, Norman. (1993) Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions, United States

Meranze, Michael. (1996) Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835, United States.

Roberts, John. (1997). Reform and Retribution: An Illustrated History of American Prisons, 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 
Walker and Walker, NY, NY.


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