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 in the small cells without any human contact for such a long period of time caused many inmates to lose their minds.
Also, the lead residue from the old pipes used in the faucet added to their insanity. The poor toilet facilities and the linked piping system caused a swift dispersion of plague and disease. The tri-daily meals consisted of primarily bread and water, with the occasional pork or beef course. These meals were anything but nourishing, and the meat was often spoiled or undercooked. This caused many inmates to become ill, and because of extremely insufficient health facilities, most inmates died from these sicknesses. 3. As high a death rate as it had, the Eastern State Penitentiary was, in its early years, a model prison.
Many prison draftsman came from around the world emulate its design and procedures. The idea of a central room that could see every cell intrigued many architects and designers. Until the death rate began to increase dramatically, the prison was considered the best in its class. 4. The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first prison created solely for the purpose of solitary confinement. The Quakers wanted to develop a prison that would attempt to reform prisoners during their sentence rather than focus on punishing them. For the most part, their attempts worked.
Only a small percentage of prisoners ended up back in the penitentiary after their sentence ended. Most prisoners who did not die or become insane eventually reformed; that is, they eventually came to regret their crimes and, after their term ended, they went on to lead respectful lives. Some prisoners did not reform in the true sense of the word; instead of realizing the error of their ways, they were scared straight. Because life in the prison was so unbearable, these prisoners decided that a life of crime would not be worth returning to the penitentiary. 5.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was not a maximum-security prison by any means. It was designed for reform, not security. Most prisoners who entered were not repeat offenders; for most, those who entered were doing so for the first time. The Quakers believed that there was good in all people, and through reformation, it could be brought out. They believed that once prisoners started to reform, they would not want to go back, hence they would not attempt to escape. 6. That the prison was designed for reform and not security led to my next fact; there were numerous escapes from the penitentiary.
The most famous escape was that of “Slick” Willie Sutton. Sutton had been previously notorious for his escapes from prison. With the help of 11 other cohorts, Sutton managed to dig a hole from his cell to outside the prison walls. However, the escape was not successful. Sutton and another one of the escapees were caught within five minutes of the escape, and the other nine were caught within six months. Unfortunately for Sutton, who had only six months left on his sentence, he was issued a much longer sentence as punishment for his escape attempt.
One question that this visit has raised is one that cannot be answered; what went on in the minds of the prisoners? With so much time on their hands, what could they be thinking? Surely, the prisoners must have considered escaping, or regretted their crimes. However, it is almost impossible to find the answers to these questions. As for the Quakers, I understand that they meant well, but it is apparent that what they were doing was not right. Solitary confinement is not an effective procedure, especially when it is dragged out for the duration that it was.
In the early-20th century, the prison’s administers decided to abolish this practice. Eventually the prisoners were allowed to eat their meals together, and were given time during the day when they could gather in the designated recreation area and could play games, such as baseball and basketball. This had a positive effect on the prisoners, as death and insanity rates dropped accordingly. However, in the early seventies, the prison was had to shut its doors due to deterioration of its structure. However, it will always be remembered by the memories passed along by the prisoners.