Eastern State Penitentiary — America's Most Historic Prison

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Known for its dark decaying walls, stark gothic exterior and its towering turrets that arc into the sky, the mass fortification of Eastern State Penitentiary is perhaps one of America's most historic incarceration centers. Located on 2027 Fairmount Ave Eastern State became operational in 1829 and oversaw thousands of inmates, some extremely notorious. The penitentiary functioned until its shutdown in 1971 when the building fell into mass disrepair and disdain, becoming something of a tale of legend and fright. However, aside from the superstition and dark tourism, Eastern State holds within its halls a stunning history. Not just as the world's first genuine “penitentiary,” Eastern State played a powerful role in prison reform and how we as a society have viewed and treated those imprisoned.

Dubbed by some as the “Philadelphia System,” the notion of the mass incarceration system rose to prominence amid concerns for prison reform. Prisons of the late 1700s did not hold perpetrators for indefinite periods of time, instead they remained jailed until their trials when , if found guilty, they might face public corporal punishment, often severe. In an effort to change this system, Philadelphians, spurred on by notable figures like Dr. Benjamin Rush and Bishop William White, provided the driving force to creating a new prison system, one based upon Quaker and Enlightenment thought. The new notion, instead of handing out capital punishment, was to deter criminals from committing misdeeds by confining them to a location. At these locations, experts instead focused on behavior correction therapies hopefully to reform criminals into acceptable members of society.

Spurred by this newfound motivation, the Pennsylvania Legislature granted a sizable sum of $250,000 for construction of Eastern State in 1821 . To design a bold new superstructure, they hired the talented British architect John Havilland . Famed now for its castle like structure, Havilland desired a “hub and spoke” layout in order that guards always possessed the ability to gaze over all prisoners . Havilland’s panopticon design inspired many architects to do similar designs for other prisons around the world. With its lengthy corridors, tall, lofty ceilings, and glass skylights that brought shimmering light down onto prisoners, Havilland’s design had the intent of representing a church, a ploy to inspire silence, reverence, and repent. The prison even housed the world's first prison synagogue to tailor to religious needs.

Had these promising designs been as functional as planned, Eastern State might have played a very different role in history. Unfortunately, it did not take long for it to surface that solitary isolation as a punishment was in fact no substitute for proper rehabilitation. Arguments quickly arose that twenty-three hours devoid of human contact and the usage of awful instruments like the “iron gag” led to mental instability and even death. Supporters of isolation versus capital punishment continued to praise Eastern State; however, critics, like famed author Charles Dickens went on the warpath. In his American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens declared that while the intent was humane, the end result was still excruciating torture, a far cry from notable reform.

Between slander, critics, and the emergence of the new labor intensive “Auburn Plan” for prisoners that developed in New York, Eastern State found itself in a bout with funding and popular opinion. In 1913, Eastern State proclaimed that the Philadelphia System had died and pursuit of alternate potential incarceration systems had begun. Matters only became more difficult for the struggling incarceration center as scandals emerged. The most popular of which came in the form of former public enemy No. 1, “Scarface” Al Capone. During an eight-month imprisonment, he enjoyed luxuries that other prisoners could not have. Overcrowding also becoming a more prominent issue. In 1933, it sparked a mass prisoner riot that led a multitude of fires set in cells. Lastly, infamous American bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton escaped the penitentiary with eleven men by digging a tunnel under a wall, permanently damaging Eastern States reputation.

In a response to these growing concerns about public safety, Eastern State closed its doors in 1971 and quickly began to decay. In 1991 the condemned castle found revitalization as a museum, becoming one of Philadelphia’s most visited tourist destinations. Eastern State today serves as an active voice in educating its visitors about the pressing issue of mass incarceration rates in America through thought-provoking exhibits and art pieces. While deemed a failure in its attempt to reform the politics of prison culture, Eastern State has become a symbol of inspiration for reformers to take the next step in the complicated quest for proper prisoner rehabilitation in the nation and worldwide.





2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130

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