In keeping with “time” as our theme, my panorama of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is a natural choice. The expression “doing time” refers to a prison sentence; and the ravages of time in this place are clear.
This is a view of Cellblock Six, one of four two-story cellblocks.
An interesting place both visually and historically, Eastern State was opened in 1829, and completed in 1835. It stemmed from a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through “confinement in solitude with labor.”
Crime was thought to be the result of environment, and so solitude would lead the criminal to have penitence -- (hence the new word, Penitentiary). The cells were designed for one inmate only, with no communication with fellow prisoners. They wore masks on rare trips outside the cell to minimize contact with the guards or fellow inmates. (see below for a link to view a panorama of a restored cell)
Eastern State became the one of the most expensive buildings in the United States at that time. Designed by John Haviland, it was the first building to have central heat and indoor plumbing in the country. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide were modeled on the Penitentiary's wagon-wheel, or "radial," floor plan.
Some of America's most notorious criminals were held in the Penitentiary's vaulted, sky-lit cells, including bank robber Willie Sutton and gangster Al Capone.
Eastern State became an early tourist attraction with visitors coming from all over the world. Alexis de Tocqueville visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont. They reported: “Thrown into solitude... [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.... Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness.”
Charles Dickens visited in 1842. He didn't agree with de Tocqueville: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,... and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
The system of solitary confinement was no longer used after 1913. The prison was in use until 1971 when it was abandoned. Decades of neglect of the empty facility led to its deterioration.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994, and, a new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001. Extensive research and restoration is ongoing.
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