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Eastern State Penitentiary

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Eastern State Penitentiary
2124 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19130
Voice: 215-236-5111

In the ambitious age of reform following the American Revolution, the new nation aspired to change profoundly its public institutions, and to set an example for the world in social development. Every type of institution that we are familiar with today--educational, medical and governmental--was revolutionized in these years by the rational and humanistic principles of the Enlightenment. Of all of the radical innovations born in this era, American democracy was the most influential. The second major intellectual export was prison design and reform.

Most eighteenth century prisons were simply large holding pens. Groups of adults and children, men and women, and petty thieves and murderers, sorted out their own affairs behind locked doors. Physical punishment and mutilation were common, and abuse of the prisoners by the guards and overseers was assumed.

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 the most expensive American building 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 cell blocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. Seven cell blocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. The ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner in 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 to lead to penitence.

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. The first cell blocks were added 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 cell blocks from the Rotunda. But the cells did not include exercise yards. Inmates were issued hoods with eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued.

Still more cell blocks 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 cell blocks. The cell blocks 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: Cell Block 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.



Pictures and information were provided by Eastern State Penitentiary

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