Crime and Punishment: Eastern State Penitentiary

I have to admit that when I think about crime and punishment, the system of crime and punishment, I don’t consider the design of the prison to be an essential part of it. Evidently I have had it all wrong! 


When visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is now an historic site, I fully expected to be walking around the ruins, doom, and gloom that would be in anyone’s imagination of what a prison would be. I was not disappointed. It was everything I expected. What I did not expect was what I found in my research following my visit. 



The idea for this prison began in 1787 when Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of our Founding Fathers, established the “Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.” (Yes, that is the full title.) Today the name has been shortened to “The Pennsylvania Prison Society.” The PSAMPP, which also included renowned Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, set out to establish the international standard on Prison Design. Up to that time, prisons were “simply large holding pens.” Regardless of your age, sex, or crime you were locked up in large room and had to fend for yourself. Needless to say prison life was a bit on the chaotic side. 

Looking outdoors.

Dr. Rush proposed a new idea: a prison designed to “create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” Enter the term “penitentiary” into our lexicon. This concept comes from Enlightenment thinking, but up to that time had not been carried out. The central idea is to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection, which would result in change. The method, inspired by the Quakers, was essentially forced isolationism with a bit of labor thrown in for good measure.

Ceiling at central rotunda.

With this in mind the society set out to find a designer to build a new prison in Philadelphia that would support and reflect this new way of thinking. The prison contract was finally awarded to a British-born architect John Haviland. The design was seven cellblocks that radiated from a central surveillance rotunda. Each prisoner had his or her private cell, which was centrally heated complete with running water, flush toilet, and skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard. 

Central Surveillance Rotunda

Think about this for just a moment. Prisoners had private quarters with heat, running water, and private gym. Andrew Jackson, the occupant in the White House at that time, did not have running water and the building was heated with coal burning stoves. (And who was the criminal?) 

Decorated cell of the famous Al "Scarface" Capone. One of the more famous inmates of ESP.

“In the vaulted, sky lit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving and the like) to lead to penitence.” Inmates were also forced to wear a hood outside of their cells to prevent interaction with guards or to be able to gain any knowledge of the building. The thinking behind this rule was also part of enlightenment thinking; “exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent.”


Construction began in 1822 and before the building could even be finished it was all the rage in the Philadelphia City Pass. People were coming in droves from all over the world to visit the enlightened prison.

Probably the most photographed barbers chair in history.

In color.

 In April of 1829, legislation specifying “separate or solitary confinement at labor” was passed.  This practice was soon known world wide as the Pennsylvania System. And in October of 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors to inmate number 1: Charles Williams. Burglar. Light black skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on thigh. Broad mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read.

One of the kitchens.

Dining hall.

This new way of thinking, however, was not without its critics. Charles Dickens, one not to shy away from stating his opinion, wrote in his travel journal:

“. . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,. . .and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”


As time moved on, however, enlightenment faded away. Eastern State Penitentiary standards slowly changed until the entire system of solitary confinement ended in 1913. Additional construction through the years created cells with standard windows and no more private exercise yard. Commercial grade kitchens were added and staffed by inmates 24 hours a day. Cells housed 2 to 3 men and the inmates congregated in the same yard for exercise and fresh air. 


Additional cellblocks were created. These without windows and plumbing. It was a new type of solitary confinement. This type was meant as punishment and not penitence. In 1956 Cellblock 15 was added. Death row.

“This modern prison block marked the final abandonment of any aspect of the Eastern’s original architectural vocabulary. The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times. Within the Penitentiary’s perimeter wall, built with the belief that all people are capable of redemption, prisoners awaited execution.” 

Death Row.

The facility closed in 1971, 142 years after inmate number one, Charles Williams, who could read, was welcomed into the system. 

Art installation on death row.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.