Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary, prison, isolation

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia (photo: author)

Many East Coasters recognize the photo featured on this website home page as taken inside the crenelated walls of Eastern State Penitentiary. A “model” institution when it was built outside Philadelphia in the early 1820’s, Eastern Pen remained in use until 1970, by which time officials deemed it “not fit for human habitation.” Governing magazine’s David Kidd recently created a photo essay about this crumbling institution, now near the city’s downtown.

Although the felons have left, today Eastern Pen is a tourist attraction and hosts concerts and other events. If you visited it today, May 10, you could attend a reunion of inmates and guards, who would answer your questions about their former lives there. Every fall, it hosts Terror Behind the Walls, “a massive haunted house in a real prison.”

Kidd points out that the Quakers who built Eastern Pen originally constructed only single-person cells, so that miscreants would have absolute solitude to reflect on their crimes and on the Bible. This, the founders believed, would make men truly penitent (“penitentiary”). In this original sense, a penitentiary differed from a prison, where convicts mingled and shared cells. From the time a prisoner entered Eastern Pen and was led to his cell (wearing a hood) until the time he left (also hooded), he never saw or spoke to another human being. Later, with more crowding, that changed.

The city fathers were proud of their innovation and eagerly showed it to visitors, one of whom was Charles Dickens. Dickens was horrified at the suffering he believed this total isolation would produce. He was inspired to replicate it in A Tale of Two Cities, where the solitary cell in the Bastille drove his character, Dr. Manette, insane.


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