Eastern State Penitentiary
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Sean Kelley is Program Director at Eastern State Penitentiary. Located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, this massive penitentiary opened in 1829 on the site of a former cherry orchard.

Sean Kelley:

It was called Cherry Hill all the way up to the 1950's. Prisons almost always have nicknames.
With its Gothic frame, bleak stone walls, and battlement towers, Kelley says Eastern State was built to intimidate.

Sean Kelley:

It's really from this view that you get that sense the best.'d look out from the city and see those towers and those walls and really get a sense of this imposing castle.

The inside was designed as the world's first penitentiary, intended to reform rather than simply punish its inmates, says Kelley.

Looking down cell block seven, a thirty-foot vaulted ceiling lets in shafts of sunlight, that were seen only by guards and Eastern State's many visitors. Inmates were kept in separate cells with no view of the impressive corridors. They were given only a Bible and time to examine their hearts.

Prisons built in the 18th century were mostly holding pens, where corporal punishment was used to keep people in line, says Jeff Cohen, a lecturer at Bryn Mawr College. He says Eastern State broke away from this by using what was called "The Pennsylvania System" of confinement:

It was a place that was meant to be much more a regenerative place to create good moral citizens. Where people could be alone with their conscience, hence penitentiary, penitence. Separate from other prisoners but in contact with the wardens, and with the ministers who walked down the aisles reading from the Bible, and people who would teach them skills that would allow them to cope in society.

The system of isolation was inspired by Quaker beliefs, and proposed by a group called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787. It took the society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to translate those beliefs into architecture, says Cohen:

The architects if this period like the social reformers of this period felt they were in the year zero, the beginning of something new, and they would use reason to create new social forms and new architectural forms.

The design of Eastern State was appropriate for the prison philosophy. British architect John Haviland's blueprints called for a rotunda with cell blocks radiating from it. The wagon wheel layout allowed guards to monitor cell blocks with ease.

The plans provided each prisoner with a private cell and exercise yard, plus central heat, running water, and a flush toilet.

Cohen says innovations at Eastern State were ambitious and sometimes failed:

Sometime being on the leading edge is being on the bleeding edge a little bit. And a lot of these systems didn't work very well but some of the kinks were worked out on each of them.

Eastern State had heating and plumbing before most homes, including the White House. Cohen says the modern amenities were only a part of Eastern State's legacy:

The real legacy of this is the reformatory notions of prisons that really began here in a significant way in the thinking of the late 18th century, in the actions of the late 19th century.

In the 1830s and 40s tourists flocked to Philadelphia to see this architectural wonder. To varying degrees, more than 300 prisons worldwide have copied Eastern State's floor plan.

Less successful was the penitentiary's policy of separate confinement. Charles Dickens stirred the public debate over the effectiveness of isolation. In his words, "The system is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. And I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."

Eastern State's Sean Kelley:

It must have been an extremely difficult punishment. ...They believed that all this punishment was in the best interest of the inmates and they would become better people in their time here. We know in hindsight that it was disastrous.

Eastern State Penitentiary gave up its system of isolation after the Civil War. The city's population had more than quadrupled since the 1820s and there was simply no room for a controversial system, or the time to defend it. When the Commonwealth finally closed the facility in 1971, the building was considered a dinosaur.

In the early 90s, the building embarked on a new career: as a non-traditional art space.
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