a cell block at eastern penitentiary

The Solitary and Silent Road of Penitence

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia was the world’s first penitentiary – a place for wrongdoers to achieve penitence for their sins, as opposed to prisons which just punished its inmates.  Operational from 1829 to 1979, it was based on Quaker principles of punishment, atonement and (radically for that time) reformation of bad characters.  ESP became the architectural model for over 300 prisons worldwide including Forest Bank which opened in Salford in England as late as 2001.  Today, ESP has been designated a national historic landmark.

ESP was revolutionary in its time because previously people who had been jailed were generally placed in large holding pens.  Prison was a place for punishment meted out injudiciously by prison guards.  The members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in Benjamin Franklin’s house (naturally) in 1787 to create a new type of prison based on Enlightenment thinking.  It took them 30 years to convince Pennsylvania that they should be start a new type of prison system.

prison cell

People sentenced ESP were placed in isolation and silence.  Each 8×12 feet cell had a bed, a work bench, a latrine and a bible.  Overhead in the cell, a window let in skylight and also reminded inmates that God could see all.  There was a little door to the outside where the inmates were allowed fresh air in individually walled 8×12 areas for 2 half-hour breaks during their 12 hour day.  The solitude and silence were supposedly instrumental in helping inmates reflect and atone for their sins.  During the 12 hour days, the inmates worked in a trade such as shoe making or weaving or prayed.

solitary confinement cell

ESP is an impressive structure even today as it lies in ruins.  It has been a tourist destination from the beginning because of its novel approach and gigantic structure. You can see Philadelphia’s skyline in the distance over the ruins of the buildings.

philadelphia skyline rises over eastern penitentiary

The original cellblocks work like the spokes of a wheel off a central round room.  Guards could stay in the round room and see down the lengths of each of the cellblocks.  Originally the cellblocks were only one floor high and could accommodate 450 prisoners.  With the increase in the prisoner population, however, later cellblocks were made to be two floors high.  The halls were long and the ceilings vaulted – an architectural design meant to convey the feeling of being in church and inspiring penitence.  By the early 20th century, isolation was no longer a feasible option and the cells contained 2-3 men each.

a cell block at eastern penitentiary

This gate lead to the hospital ward.  One of ESP’s famous prisoners, Chicago mob boss, Al Capone, had his tonsils removed here.

the hospital block at eastern penitentiary

The outside of ESP is built like a medieval fortress – impregnable and impressive.  Note the murder slits in the towers – a detail from medieval times which in 19th century Philadelphia was merely decorative.  The slits don’t go all the way back to the other side of the wall.  The whole complex was supposed to inspire fear in anyone who thought about breaking the law.

turret at eastern penitentiary

ESP is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the world.  Presumably many of its inmates went mad after years of prolonged isolation.  An early famous visitor in 1842, Charles Dickens, thought the system was well-intentioned but a form of torture which messed with a human being’s mind.

door to an inmate's cell

Children under 7 years old are not allowed to tour ESP.  I had not planned on taking my 8 year old son on the ESP tour but he found it fascinating.  Originally he was supposed to be at sleep away camp, but he broke his arm, and spent the summer hanging out with me. A natural chatterbox, he found the concept of not speaking to anyone really hard to understand.  There is a audio tour guide narrated by the actor Steve Buscemi which provides really interesting narrative and background on ESP.  He was fascinated with the stories told on the tour guide and we had some interesting things to discuss afterwards.

original cell block

ESP is today run as a museum which is open most of the year.  They run a well-received Halloween haunted house spectacular every autumn.  The site has been used in various television and film projects such as Brad Pitt’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys and the 2008 Transformers sequel.

cell block highway

ESP is a fascinating look at historical means of achieving punishment and redemption.  We clearly are still grappling with the same issues although I think we have veered far towards punishment and pretty much forgotten redemption as shown by the film, The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest, I have posted about earlier.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “The Solitary and Silent Road of Penitence

  1. BWLEtravel

    Interesting, but creepy. Didn’t de Tocqueville also visit this place? His actual grant from the French government was to study the American penal system which was unique on the planet at the time for its focus


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