This blog post came from my mom. We were discussing topics I’d been thinking of writing about and my mom suggested Eastern State Penitentiary; I’d been a bit paralyzed by choice for what to do next and Eastern State seemed perfect. Our family visited Eastern State in 2010 on our trip to Philadelphia. I’d never heard of it before. It’s… such a weird place. When you are walking up to this huge, imposing building, you definitely get the idea of what the original planners and the architect were trying to do.
In the late 18th c. in the United States, most prisons were just large holding pens. All types of criminals were thrown together: men, women, violent, nonviolent, all together. If you were put in prison it was also expected that guards would abuse you in some way or another.
In 1787, a group of powerful Philadelphian’s met at Benjamin Franklin’s house. They were concerned about the conditions of prisons in the U.S. and in Europe. These men formed the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (this still exists as the Pennsylvania Prison Society). This was the first prison reform group in the world. The penal code in Pennsylvania, Quaker and Enlightenment thought all made Philadelphia into the center of prison reform at this time. The society’s goal was “to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design” and proposed “a radical idea to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart” (1).
At this time the main prison in Pennsylvania was the Walnut Street Jail. It was overcrowded and it cost a lot to transport prisoners in from elsewhere in the state. The new prison design would abandon corporal punishment and would “move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change” using Quaker inspired methods of isolation and labor (2). It took over thirty years for the Society to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of their idea. Because of the cost of transporting prisoners, two prisons were planned, Western Penitentiary near Pittsburgh, and Eastern State Penitentiary at Philadelphia. The designer of Eastern State was British-born John Haviland; he was paid $100 for his design. Eastern State would cost $780,000 to build and took 11 acres of land.
Haviland’s idea had a central surveillance area with seven cellblocks radiating out from there, so guards could see the entire prison from the middle. Each prisoner would be in their own cell which was heated, had running water, a flushing toilet and a skylight (at this time the White House didn’t even have running water). Each cell also had its own individual exercise area outside, surrounded by a ten-foot high wall. The idea was for the prisoner to have everything they needed right in their cell, “the light from heaven [the skylight], the word of God (the Bible) and honest work … to lead to penitence” (3).
Prisoners wore hoods whenever they were out of their cells so they would be penitent (hence penitentiary). The new prison reformers believed that silence would allow the prisoners to concentrate on their behavior and the horror of their crimes. Guards even wore felt coverings on their shoes to reduce noise. Reformation of criminals was the key in the new prisons and isolation was to “give him ample opportunity to ponder his mistakes and make his peace with God. If this were not effective, once the man was released the memory of this complete and awful isolation would be sufficiently terrifying to deter further crime” (4).
Outsiders knew the prison kept criminals in isolation; this was supposed to be a deterrent for criminals. If that was not enough, the building itself was hopefully imposing enough to deter them. While the interior was churchlike with “30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows,” a “forced monastery, a machine for reform” (5), the exterior of the prison was Gothic: strong, punishing, and intimidating.
The Eastern Penitentiary Act of 1821 allowed for the prison to be built, initially to house 250 prisoners, but additions were almost immediately added to double capacity. The first prisoner was admitted on October 25, 1829. The first female prisoners were admitted in 1831.
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s tourists would visit the prison. By 1858, over 10,000 tourists visited in a year (the most until the prison opened for tours in 1994). European countries sent delegations to visit the prison and report back. The “distinctive geometric form and … regimen of isolation became a symbol of progressive, modern principles” (6). Over the rest of the 19th c. over 300 prisons across the world were based on the radial plan. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont reported back to the French government in 1831, praising Eastern State. Charles Dickens, however, in an 1842 visit did not like the system of isolation in the prison; he wrote a chapter in his travel journal “American Notes for General Circulation” just on his thoughts about Eastern State.
Dickens was not the only detractor. A debate grew over whether or not the isolation and penitence was effective. A rival prison system grew out of this debate. New York State’s Auburn System consisted of isolation only at night, communal work taking place during the day. Eventually these criticisms won out and the Eastern State system was abandoned by 1913 (though some prisons based on it were still built until just after World War II).
Because of the criticisms, new additions and policies at Eastern State were a compromise. New additions that were built in the 1870s and 1890s looked similar but had communal exercise yards, though silence was still mandatory. The hoods the inmates had to wear when out of their cells now had eyeholes. Solitary cells slowly went away. Other new additions still had halls that looked like the original ones, with catwalks and skylights, but the cells were different. These had smaller cells (since the prisoners weren’t spending all their time in them) and had normal windows instead of skylights. Underground, windowless cells were built, but this solitary confinement was a punishment instead of the norm.
By 1905, the prisoners were doing their work communally, and by 1909 the inmates were publishing their own newspaper. In 1924 the prison had its first group dining halls. In August 1924, newspapers reported that the governor donated his own dog as a morale booster, though another story says Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” had murdered the governor’s wife’s cat.
For the prison’s centennial in 1929, the administration created a movie focusing on the prisons modernizations rather than the history of the facility. The movie showed the “new factory-style weaving shops; the commercial-grade bakery and kitchens, staffed by dozens of inmates twenty-four hours a day; and the new guard towers with searchlights and sirens”; cells housed two or three men, and “former exercise yards, roofed over, their party walls removed” became workshops and dining halls (7).
Also in 1929, the prison’s most famous resident moved in. Al Capone served his first sentence at Eastern State, eight months for carrying a concealed weapon. His cell was stocked with a rug, oil paintings, and other antiques. You can still see his cell on display.
In 1956 the last large addition was made to Eastern State: death row, cellblock fifteen. This was completely different from the rest of the facility. Everything in cellblock fifteen was electronic, and guards and inmates were almost never in contact.
Over the years there had been occasional riots at Eastern State. The prison’s largest riot took place in 1961. Discussions began about closing Eastern State. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 after 142 years in use. Any prisoners that were still at the facility were moved elsewhere in the state.
So, what to do with this property? Philadelphia had certified the prison as a history property in 1958, and the federal government made it a National Historic Landmark in 1965, but that didn’t really mean much once it was empty. In 1974 the mayor of Philadelphia suggested demolishing the prison and building a criminal justice center. In 1980, Philadelphia paid Pennsylvania about $400,000 for the property, with hopes of developing it. By 1988 though, nothing had been done and the mayor wanted to develop the area. The Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force stopped this plan though.
In 1991 funding helped to preserve and stabilize the building, and that year the first Halloween fundraiser was held. The Halloween fundraiser continues to this day, “generat[ing] most of the money used to maintain the … prison and operate day and nighttime tours throughout the years” (8). In 2012 the Halloween event raised money for “63 percent of … operating costs for the entire year” (9).
The Pennsylvania Prison Society finally was able to open the building for guided tours in 1994, with over 10,000 guests that first year, and in 1998 the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. was formed to run tours and continue preservation. In 1996 the World Monument Fund named Eastern State Penitentiary on its list of 100 “most important endangered landmarks in the world” (10). By 2003 the prison had audio tours available and the building had been stabilized enough that guests no longer had to wear hardhats. By 2007 the prison was operating seven days a week, twelve months a year. In 2010 new tours and art installations were added to the facility (when we were there the art installation was a bunch of cats, based on the stray cats that used to live on the property), and restoration on the cellblocks continues.
So that’s the history of Eastern State Penitentiary. I mentioned at the beginning that I visited in 2010. I really recommend going. Like I said it’s a bit weird feeling being there, and the building is so imposing, but it’s just so cool at the same time. It’s also just such an important building. I touched briefly on the impact of Eastern State on prisons worldwide. Next time I’m going to talk about that more, and why that’s maybe not entirely true, as well as talking about the architect, John Haviland. Till next time.
1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 – Eastern State Penitentiary-General Overview
8, 9 – Laurel Dalrymple, “At An Abandoned Philadelphia Prison, All Hell Breaks Loose”, NPR, October 24, 2013