Eastern State Penitentiary Philadelphia / PA


In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society’s goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design. He proposed a radical idea: to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart. The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program.
Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.
Eastern’s seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.
In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence. In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, that ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls.
Virtually all prisons designed in the nineteenth century, world wide, were based on one of two systems: New York State’s Auburn System, and the Pennsylvania System embodied in the Eastern State Penitentiary. During the century following Eastern’s construction, more than 300 prisons in South America, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and across the British Empire were based on its plan.
Delegations came directly to Philadelphia to study the Pennsylvania System and its architecture. For many nations, Eastern’s distinctive geometric form and its regimen of isolation became a symbol of progressive, modern principles.
As tourists flocked to Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s to see this architectural wonder, a debate grew about the effectiveness and compassion of solitary confinement. Was it cruel to hold these men and women without outside visitors, without books or letters from home, without contact with the outside world? Accounts vary.
The critics eventually prevailed. The Pennsylvania System was abandoned in 1913. In some countries in Europe and Asia the separate system continued until the post-Second World War period.
The later additions into the Eastern State Penitentiary complex illustrate the compromise reached when this munificent, ill-fated intellectual movement collided with the reality of modern prison operation. Warden Michael Cassidy added the first cellblocks in the 1870s and 1890s. They retain the barrel vaults and skylights, the feeding doors and mechanical systems. Mirrors provide continued surveillance into the new cellblocks from the Rotunda. But the cells did not include exercise yards. Inmates were issued hoods with–for the first time–eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity.
The system of solitary confinement at Eastern State did not so much collapse as erode away over the decades. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued.
Still more cellblocks were constructed. Reinforced concrete replaced stone. The new cells were small, square, and lit by ordinary windows, but the halls had the catwalks and skylights typical of the early Eastern cellblocks. The cellblocks were invisible from the Rotunda. Subterranean and windowless cells, with neither light nor plumbing, brought a return to solitary confinement at Eastern. This time the isolation was not for redemption, but punishment. The cells were nicknamed “Klondike.”
The last major addition was made to Eastern State Penitentiary’s complex of buildings in 1956: Cellblock Fifteen, or Death Row. This modern prison block marked the final abandonment of any aspect of the Eastern’s original architectural vocabulary. The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times. Within the Penitentiary’s perimeter wall, built with the belief that all people are capable of redemption, prisoners awaited execution.
Some of America’s most notorious criminals were held in Eastern’s cells. When gangster Al Capone found himself in front of a judge for the first time in 1929, he was sentenced to one year in prison. He spent most of that sentence in relative comfort at Eastern State, where he was allowed to furnish his cell with antiques, rugs, and oil paintings.
By the 1960′s, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994, and, in 1997, signed a twenty-year agreement with the City to operate the site. A new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001.


Source: Official Eastern State Penitentiary Website

2 Responses to “Eastern State Penitentiary Philadelphia / PA”

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