In the early 1800s, prisons were widely regarded as ineffective institutions. The Quakers, the kindly, war-hating, gentle, people, wanted to change this. Their primary goal was to create a prison that attempted to reform prisoners, rather than punish them. Following this mission statement, they constructed the Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. The Eastern State Penitentiary is the oldest of its kind in the United States. It closed its doors in the 1970s, and opened as an historical site in the early nineties, administered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society. In the following paper I will chronicle my trip to The Eastern State Penitentiary on October 25 with my mother.
The penitentiary is designed around a central room, with seven corridors branching out from it. From this room, the guards can see all of the cell corridors. Each of these corridors houses many solitary cells. When the tour begins, the group is takes into the first corridor. Here we see the first cell. It is a relatively large cell, about eight by ten feet. The room contains a small cot, a table, and a toilet. The only material possession of the prisoner was a Bible. A long, narrow skylight at the top of the room lets the only light in. At the rear of the room there is a doorway to the solitary exercise yard. At the opposite end of the room there is a small hole in the wall that opens into the corridor. The prisoner is fed through this hole. The rest of the tour takes us through the remainder of the prison. At the end of the tour there is a museum-type display explaining such concepts as solitary confinement and the daily life of the prisoners. There are many visual displays throughout the site, including a three-dimensional overhead view of the penitentiary.
Our tour guide ran the tour commendably. He knew much about the site, more than was needed to direct the tour. He was able to answer any questions that anyone had. The tour itself was very interesting. The Penitentiary was incredible; the idea that only 25 years ago it was actually used as a full-scale prison is mesmerizing. The whole place seemed unreal in its enormity and brilliance. The museum section of the prison was an excellent supplement to the tour. It provided new knowledge, such as information on the dining conditions if the facility, and answered any questions I had after the tour. The museum contained many secondary sources, written by many miscellaneous specialists. It also contained many primary sources. These included handmade weapons made by the prisoners and letters from the families some inmates.
The visit gave me new insight on the prison conditions of the 19th and 20th centuries. I had no prior knowledge on this subject, so this tour has taught me a lot. Observing the environment that the inmates lived through interested me, and I now understand the suffering conditions that they had to endure. Viewing the prison and its philosophy from the outside in has shown me that while the Quakers thought they were doing the right thing, solitary confinement is not an effective method of reform. The tour also gave me more information on the social life in the 19th century. I learned, through some of the letters in the museum section of the penitentiary, that while common practices differed greatly, the general population acted and thought essentially the same as we do now.
Six facts that I learned from this tour are as follows:
1. The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first full-scale penitentiary to have running water, heat, and electricity in each cell. Each cell contained a toilet and a radiator, and, after its invention, electric light. However, these conditions were not exactly a luxury. In order to save water, the toilets were flushed by the guards, not the prisoners, no more than once a week. This caused massive buildup in the toilets, which led to a constant foul smell in the cell. Also, because the radiator was right next to the toilet, the sewage pipes were heated, causing more stench and the rapid spread of disease.
2. Because of such poor living conditions, many inmates either died or went insane. Many inmates were sentenced to very long terms. Living