Penitence through patience

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most haunting, spectacular and interesting places I have ever visited. The sprawling complex served as one of Pennsylvania’s primary high security prisons for over 140 years before being closed in 1971.

The Penitentiary was built in 1829 in a cherry orchard amidst open fields to the north of the city. By the time the prison closed, the burgeoning metropolis had completely surrounded the 11 acre site. Its proximity to central Philadelphia and Fairmount Park ensured the empty facility was a prime real estate development opportunity. Unfortunately for the state treasury (but fortunately for history buffs and tourists) the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Twenty years of outlandish plans and projects were considered, ranging from apartments in what would have been labelled the world’s most secure gated development to a shopping mall (presumably with changing rooms in converted cells). All the while, nature slowly reasserted itself before completely taking over – the site became a crumbling, forested wilderness.

Trees grew out of cells, reaching for the sun through the skylights and a colony of feral cats stalked the grounds, defending their territory with the tenacity of the prison’s former guards. The manmade structures became spooky echoes of their former states – rooms were filled with twisted, rusting beds, broken porcelain toilets and splintered wooden furniture. Plastered walls flaked, paint peeled and the roofs began to collapse.

Eventually the complex was saved by the City of Philadelphia, redevelopment plans were halted and the site was stabilised ready for the first visitors in 1994. Since then, the Penitentiary has been preserved in a state of managed ruin. Safety has improved to the extent that visitors no longer need to wear hard hats or have to sign a personal injury disclaimer.

Eastern State Penitentiary claims to be the world’s first true ‘penitentiary’ – a facility designed specifically to induce penitence, redemption and rehabilitation rather than a place for punishment or as a holding pen until trial.

It was no coincidence that prison reform and an emphasis on the rehabilitative aspects of incarnation were championed in Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love had a strong Quaker tradition and this was evident in the work of the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.

The Penitentiary was supported by some of Pennsylvania’s (and America’s) leading individuals. The plan was conceived in Benjamin Franklin’s house, was strongly supported by Philadelphia’s Anglican bishop, William White and Dr Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence.

Although it took three decades to get the Penitentiary from an idea to a finished building, the result was revolutionary. An English architect, John Haviland, was commissioned to build the prison along modern, even radical lines.

The Penitentiary originally comprised of seven cellblocks radiating from a central surveillance rotunda. It was possible for a single guard to see to the end of each of these blocks from a single position in the middle of the rotunda. All of this was surrounded by a grim, imposing and impressive mock Gothic wall, complete with turrets, battlements and window slits.

Although the prison was intended to be reformed, it was felt there was little harm in reminding the people of Philadelphia of the punishment that awaited them if they committed crime.

Under the ‘Pennsylvania System’, inmates were kept in solitary confinement, and any communication between prisoners, indeed any noise of any kind, was prohibited. Wardens would patrol the corridors with woollen socks over their boots to muffle the sounds of their footsteps, and the food trolleys had leather covered wheels to render them silent.

Inmates were kept in an individual cell, with only a hatch leading to the internal corridor to allow the supply of food. Each cell was connected to a small outdoor space and prisoners were permitted an hour’s external exercise each day. Solitary confinement would give the prisoner time to focus exclusively on their crimes and, it was hoped, induce their rehabilitation.

Haviland’s introduced a range of innovations to the Penitentiary. The cells were centrally heated and had both running water and a flush toilet. This contrasts to the White House under Andrew Jackson which, at this time, had no running water and relied on coal stoves for heat. Each cell had a skylight to let in natural light and to act as a reminder of God’s omnipresence and constant surveillance.

Newly arrived inmates were first processed and then led to their cell. On this journey, prisoner’s faces were covered by a bag. This disorientated the inmates and ensured they had little knowledge of the prison’s layout. This tactic minimised the prisoner’s escape opportunities and ensured prisoners were kept entirely anonymous from each other.

Anonymity was a key component of the ‘Pennsylvania System’, and prisoners were assigned numbers rather than using their names. The idea was to ensure that they would not suffer prejudice once released by being recognised by other released prisoners.

Not everyone was convinced of the appropriateness or success of the ‘Pennsylvania System’. On Charles Dickens’s celebrated first trip to the USA, the writer said he wanted to see Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He was not impressed with the latter, noting that:

“The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong….”

In case this left any doubt, he went on to say:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote after visiting Eastern State.”

There was a lot riding on the success of the Penitentiary – construction costs had swallowed the enormous sum of $780,000 by 1836, equivalent to an economic cost of almost $8 billion in today’s money.

Eventually, the Philadelphia System would fall out of favour across the United States. Even Eastern State Penitentiary would move to the Auburn / New York System. By 1913, all aspects of the solitary confinement regime were abandoned, and Eastern State became a regular prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the best historic sites, museums and art installations I have ever been to. It is thought provoking, interesting and, in its preserved state of decay and ruin, astonishingly and strangely beautiful. If you are ever in or near Philadelphia, go visit – you’ll be glad you did.