Eastern State Penitentiary: A Prison With a Past

Philadelphia set the stage for prison reform not only in Pennsylvania, but also the world over

Eastern State Penitentiary food cart
Meals were delivered to the inmates and they ate in their cells. Food carts ran on tracks along the catwalks in the two story cellblocks. Elena Bouvier

In 1787, four years after the American Revolutionary War, the United States was a country brimming with possibility, and no city felt the excitement more than Philadelphia. Delegates such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were gathering at Independence Hall to draft what would later become the Constitution. That same year, a couple of blocks away from Independence Hall, at the home of Benjamin Franklin, another group of civic-minded leaders gathered to debate a wholly different matter: prison reform.

Conditions at the Walnut Street Jail located directly behind Independence Hall were appalling. Men and women, adults and children, thieves and murderers were jailed together in disease-ridden, dirty pens where rape and robbery were common occurrences. Jailors made little effort to protect the prisoners from each other. Instead, they sold the prisoners alcohol, up to nearly twenty gallons of it a day. Food, heat, and clothing came at a price. It wasn't unusual for prisoners to die from the cold or starvation. A group of concerned citizens, calling themselves the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, decided that this must not continue. What they would propose set the stage for prison reform not only in Pennsylvania, but also the world over.

From its beginning, Pennsylvania was determined to be different from other colonies. Founder William Penn brought his Quaker values to the new colony, avoiding the harsh criminal code practiced in much of British North America, where death was the standard punishment for a litany of crimes, including the denial of the one "true God," kidnapping, and sodomy. Penn, instead, relied on imprisonment with hard labor and fines as the treatment for most crimes, while death remained the penalty only for murder. But upon Penn's passing in 1718, conservative groups did away with his Quaker-based system, and incorporated the harsh retributions that were the norm elsewhere. Jails simply became detention centers for prisoners as they awaited some form of corporal or capital punishment. It would take another seventy years before anyone would try to do away with this severe penal code.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was a prominent Philadelphia physician with an interest in politics. In 1776, he served in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. More than a decade later, he would lead the push for ratification of the federal Constitution. He was an outspoken abolitionist, and would later earn the title "father of American psychiatry" for his groundbreaking observations about "diseases of the mind."

As a newly minted doctor training in London in 1768, Rush ran into Benjamin Franklin who was then serving as an agent to Parliament for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin, a celebrity among the Parisians, urged the curious twenty-two-year-old to cross the English Channel and experience the Enlightenment thinking that filled French parlors. The following year, Rush did. He mingled among scientists, philosophers and literati, listening to progressive European theories about such issues as crime and punishment that would eventually follow him to America.

In 1787 Rush was back in the company of Franklin and his American contemporaries proclaiming that a radical change was needed not just at the jail on Walnut Street, but the world over. He was convinced that crime was a "moral disease," and suggested a "house of repentance" where prisoners could meditate on their crimes, experience spiritual remorse and undergo rehabilitation. This method would later be called the Pennsylvania System and the institution a penitentiary. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, also known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, agreed, and set out to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Changes were made at the Walnut Street Jail—inmates were segregated by sex and crime, vocational workshops were instituted to occupy the prisoners' time, and much of the abusive behavior was abolished—but it wasn't enough. Philadelphia's population was growing by leaps and bounds, and so was the criminal element. A prison of a grander scale was needed to fulfill the prison society's mission. For repentance to truly happen, the complete isolation of each prisoner would need to occur, and this was impossible to do in these overcrowded jails.

Construction of Eastern State Penitentiary began on a cherry orchard outside of Philadelphia in 1822. The chosen design, created by British-born architect John Haviland, was unlike any seen before: seven wings of individual cellblocks radiating from a central hub. The penitentiary opened in 1829, seven years before completion, but the institution proved to be a technological marvel. With central heating, flush toilets, and shower baths in each private cell, the penitentiary boasted luxuries that not even President Andrew Jackson could enjoy at the White House

Charles Williams, a farmer sentenced to two years for theft, would be inmate number one. On October 23, 1829, Williams was escorted into the new prison with an eyeless hood placed over his head. This was done to secure his anonymity and eventual integration into society upon release, as no one would recognize his face from the prison. But it also served another purpose: to ensure that there would be no chance at escape, as Williams would never see the prison beyond his private cell. Communication with guards was done through a small feeding hole. The inmates lived in complete isolation, with a Bible their only possession, and chores like shoemaking and weaving to occupy their time.

Delegates from around the world came to study the famous Pennsylvania System. Alex de Tocqueville praised the concept, writing about his 1831 trip: "Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than solitude...leads [a prisoner] through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by...idleness?" Others also agreed. More than 300 prisons throughout Europe, South America, Russia, China and Japan would be based on the Eastern State Penitentiary model. But some were not so convinced of the method. Charles Dickens, after his visit in 1842, wrote critically: "I am persuaded that those who designed this system... do not know what it is they are doing... I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Dickens' doubt would prevail. In 1913, Eastern State gave up on the Pennsylvania System of isolation and penitence. Prisoners shared cells, worked together, and even played in organized sports. Francis Dolan, site manager of the Eastern State Penitentiary Historical Site, explains, "The solitary confinement system was nearly impossible to maintain given the technology of the early 19th century, and collapsed under the weight of it's own lofty morals." And just like the jail on Walnut Street, the penitentiary, says Dolan, "was doomed by the rapid growth of Philadelphia." What was meant to originally hold about 300 prisoners was, by the 1920s, forced to house some 2,000. More and more cells were constructed, including ones built below ground without windows, light or plumbing. Eventually, solitude wasn't about redemption, but punishment.

By the 1960s, Eastern State Penitentiary was falling apart. In 1971 it was officially closed by the state of Pennsylvania. Over the course of its 142 years, the penitentiary held some 75,000 inmates, including the gangster Al Capone. Declared a national historic landmark in 1965, the prison was opened as a historic site in 1994. Today tourists, and not criminals, walk beneath the vaulted ceilings and skylights of the neo-Gothic building that once represented the moral ambitions of America's founding fathers.

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