A Look Inside Eastern State Penitentiary

Outside the Penitentiary

While we were in Philadelphia, we made a last-minute decision to go on a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary. Having taken a very enjoyable, informative and spooky night tour of Fremantle Prison not too long ago, I thought it would be interesting to see how one of the oldest American prisons compared. It turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the trip.

The first thing that grabbed my eye was the Gothic architecture. The castle-like exterior of the prison was designed to frighten the townspeople into staying on the straight and narrow. In fact, on the inside the prison wasn’t a particularly scary place at all, and those guard towers? They’re actually only at knee height.

Outdoor corridorThe tour was awesome. I guess you might be sick of hearing that, as I’ve praised tours a lot in my recent posts, but bear with me. I think this was the best one of them all. As you can guess, it started out with the history of how the place came to be built.

The prison systems of the late 18th century were fraught with problems, a lot of which are familiar to us now. Cells were overcrowded, inmates weren’t becoming better people, and in fact seemed to learn to perfect their crimes among like-minded people.

With all these issues plaguing society, some of the greatest minds in the country sought to devise a new prison system that would resolve the problems, and hopefully actually reform the prisoners. Dr. Benjamin Rush founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787 (an organisation that exists to this day, albeit with a far less cool name: the Pennsylvania Prison Society), and over the next few years worked with people such as Benjamin Franklin to come up with a plan.

StepsWhat they came up with was a radical idea; the notion that prisoners should be kept entirely separate from one another, where they could meditate and reflect on their sins and seek penance in solitude and silence.  After some trial runs using the system and some extensive lobbying, the government of Philadelphia eventually approved the creation of Eastern State Penitentiary. It opened in 1829 and is considered the world’s first penitentiary (penance, penitence, penitentiary… get it?)

The building is pretty cool. Its revolutionary design was so successful it would be copied by about 300 prisons around the world. The architect was John Haviland, an Englishman who beat all his competitors to claim the precious $100 prize for the best design. So what was so great about it? Well there are a few things. Firstly there was the distinctive panopticon layout, with one building in the centre, and each wing of the prison leading off from it, forming a kind of wagon-wheel shape. A single guard could stand in the central building and see down the corridors of every wing of the prison from that one spot just be rotating in place.

Guard TowerThe cells were made to ensure each prisoner had the privacy needed to reflect and do the whole penance thing. When inside their cell, a prisoner was entirely cut-off from contact with anyone else, guards included. The central corridor where guards could walk had only a slot for food, but no actual door.

The prisoners were led into their cell via their own exercise yard. Yes, that’s right. Every cell had its own high-walled exercise yard behind it. It was coordinated so that no two adjacent prisoners could be in their yards at the same time, and hence there could be no communication between prisoners. Furthermore, when a new inmate was brought in, or existing inmates were moved, they were always blindfolded so that no one could recognize any one else.

The building was also ahead of its time, with each cell having proper toilets and running water. It was state of the art for hygiene, but more importantly it meant that they were completely self-contained. Meals, exercise and bathing could be done without contact with anyone. Perfect isolation. Oh and my favourite personal touch is the skylight! Each cell had a tiny skylight in the ceiling allowing a tiny beam of light to shine into the room, playing up the religious penance angle. A masterstroke of religiosity.

Dark corridorAs you can probably guess, there were some problems with this system. There was no solid evidence that it worked. Remember this is before they had proper criminal records, a parole system, or ways to keep tabs on people once they got out. There was really no way to prove how many of them had abandoned their evil ways. Many people also thought the isolation was inhumane, particularly Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in 1842.

By 1913, the system of solitary confinement was abandoned. Over the next few decades, up until its closure in 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary went through a lot of changes in becoming a conventional prison as we know them today. There were various expansions of the cell blocks, adding extra levels and extra buildings, and these unfortunately ruined the genius of the original design.

Wow, I’m getting really into all this. I feel like I’m becoming a Wikipedia article. I better not get too carried away, so I’ll just touch on one last point, the last part of the tour where we got a look at a restored version of Al Capone‘s cell.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Repr...

Al Capone’s cell / holiday home.

Capone was incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary for 8 months in 1929-1930 after being arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Once inside he sure got comfortable. It was a ridiculous sight to behold. The cell was one of the largest in the prison; it was probably larger than my old bedroom at my parents house. To say it was comfortable is a massive understatement; the cell was opulent, decked out with beautiful furniture and a cabinet radio. I mean, check it out for god’s sake!

And it gets better. The cell is located far away from any other inmates, with the exception of one adjacent cell which was home to Capone’s bodyguard who was arrested with him. Opposite these cells is a large gate locking that wing of the prison. On one side of the gate were all the prisoners of the wing, on the other side were the guards. Guess which side Capone’s cell is on? That’s right. The guards side.

Like all the tours we’ve done on the trip, the tour guide was an awesome speaker, with plenty of knowledge and bad jokes; in other words, the ideal guide. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d definitely check it out. Or, if you’re not likely to be in the area anytime soon and want to learn more, the Wikipedia article is pretty informative.

Oh and if you make it over to Eastern State Penitentiary and don’t want to take a full tour, definitely get the audio guide as it’s narrated by the sexiest man alive: Steve Buscemi!

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