Eastern State Penitentiary
Our wonderful friends in Media booked a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary as part of our visit with them.
What an interesting and educational trip it was! We had the most wonderful and informative guide, pictured below:
Eastern State Penitentiary is a former American prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is found at 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street.
The Penitentiary was operational from 1829 until 1971.
The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment.
Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its innovative wagon wheel design.
When the building was erected it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark, which is open to the public as a museum.
Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary, despite the fact that the Walnut Street Jail, which opened in 1776, was called a “penitentiary” as early as 1790 .
The word “penitentiary” derives from the word “penitence.” Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or Separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
The Castle-like appearance of the prison was done purposefully as the city of Philadelphia was far from the prison, which sat atop a hill on a farm. As residents of Philadelphia, new immigrants from Europe, gazed upon the hill they would see the foreboding medieval castle and be reminded of the harsh treatment they fled Europe to avoid.
It was Mr. Haviland’s intent that this reminder would deter these new citizens of America to think twice before committing a crime that would place them in the confines of this castle. It is interesting to note that the windows facing outwards on the towers and walls are not windows at all, but decorations on the facade to make onlookers feel that the guards of the towers were watching them in their every move.
Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks.
This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise.
The halls were designed to have the feel of a Church.
Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack on a security guard. Others have explained the small doors forced the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison.
The cells were made of concrete with a single glass Skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching them.
Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn’t communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards.
When prisoners left the cell, a guard would accompany them and wrap a hood over their heads to prevent them from being recognized by other prisoners.
Each cell had accommodations that were advanced for their time, which included a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, as well as curved pipes along part of one wall which served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated. The toilets were remotely flushed twice a week by the guards of the cellblock.
The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, the prison was already over capacity. From then on, all the other cell blocks were two floors. Toward the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily built due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell block 15 was for the worst behaved prisoners, and the guards were gated off from there entirely.
The prison was one of the largest public-works projects of the early republic, and was a tourist destination in the 19th century. Notable visitors included Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville.
The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. While some have argued that the Pennsylvania System was Religious Society of Friends Quaker-inspired, there is little evidence to support this; the organization that promoted Eastern State’s creation, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (today’s Pennsylvania Prison Society) was in fact less than half Quaker, and was led for nearly fifty years by Philadelphia’s Anglican bishop, William White (Bishop of Pennsylvania).
Proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. In reality, the guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, including dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called “The Hole”, an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.
In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” (an actual dog) to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.
On April 3, 1945, a major prison escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton) who over the course of a year managed to dig an undiscovered tunnel under the prison wall to freedom. During renovations in the 1930s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were also discovered.
It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.