It was a dreary April afternoon in Philadelphia when I visited the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary; a rainy, 40-degree day, but it seemed fitting. The prison’s castle-like walls towered over me, and the guard tower was shrouded in mist as I approached.
When Eastern State was constructed in 1821, the founders truly hoped that convicts (mostly horse thieves at the time) could find penitence through Christianity. All of the inmates lived in solitary confinement had small yards and a Bible– similarly to many Europeans monastic orders. Solitary confinement also provided anonymity, so when the inmates finished their sentences, they could return to their lives without that they would be recognized by someone else who’d been in prison.
Additionally, the prisoners were taught trades, so that they would, hopefully, be able to find employment and not resort to theft again. The prisoners also met with chaplains or counselors to discuss their issues and spiritual needs.
Initially, there were few enough inmates that this solitary confinement was possible, and debatable to some extent successful. However, the population of Philly grew, and so did the crime.
The original one-story radial layout allowed a single guard to patrol the cells from the center. Standing in this spot, I peered down each hall past hundreds of cells. Later, a second floor was added to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners.
The influx of convicts soon rendered the solitary-confinement system impossible, and the penitentiary became a more typical prison in 1913— focused on mass incarceration rather than rehabilitation. In this period, solitary confinement became a form of punishment rather than potential salvation. Still, Eastern State stuck to some of its original Christian monastic values; for example, inmates planted vegetable gardens as a group to grow food, not only for the purpose of providing food but also for meditation.
It was eerie, but beautiful in the strangest way. The walls were crumbling, but the paint lingered, along with drawings and graffiti from inmates, as well as dentist and barber chairs, commodes, and metal bedframes.
Eastern State also houses some pretty eclectic art, much of which is made by inmates around the U.S. about their experiences. Other pieces, such as the one below, show the faces of victims of Eastern State inmates.
It was a haunting but eye-opening experience, seeing how the U.S. prison system changed over time to become what it is today. There was a powerful exhibit on contemporary prison-related issues, such as the mass incarceration of African-Americans, and Americans in general. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 730 out of every 100,000 people in prison; approximately 2.5 million people.
Interestingly, the exhibits showed the nuances of prison reform; some policies work in some places but not in others. Norway eased up on law enforcement and ended the death penalty, and saw a decline in crime, while Singapore ramped up law enforcement and increased the number of crimes punishable by death, and saw an even greater decline. In the U.S., the death penalty shows no correlation to crime rates, but poverty and ethnicity do; it’s no secret that the U.S. justice system is extremely racially-biased. The U.S.’ attempt to be “tough on crime” really meant tougher on non-whites, and therefore did not actually solve the problem.
Though black and white men are equally likely to be drug users (9-10%), black men are three times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug-related crime, and given harsher sentences for the same or even a less crime.
The exhibits also make it quite clear that, in the U.S., that the privatization of prisons has made mass incarceration profitable, and therefore reduces incentives for prisoner rehabilitation.
The spookiest thing is that, by incarcerating more non-whites, our justice system can sway democracy; prisoners can’t vote in most states, and in some states cannot vote while on probation.
Eastern State Penitentiary challenges one’s notions of justice and incarceration: what should prison be for? It is to provide retribution for victims? To set an example and deter the public from committing crimes? Should prison merely incapacitate those deemed ‘dangerous’ and separate them from the public, or should these institutions focus on rehabilitating those who have broken the law?
Coming Soon: A review of ‘Terror Behind the Walls’, a huge haunted house inside Eastern State Penitentiary