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The following text is the transcrip from an informative speech I gave about Eastern State Penitentiary in July of 1998. It contains information about Eastern State's history and its role in Philadelphia today.
by: brett bertolino
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. Theft included one twenty dollar watch, one three dollar gold seal, and one gold key. Sentenced two years confinement with labor. Prisoner number one. Eastern State Penitentiary.
Although Charles Williams was sentenced to spend two years at Eastern State Penitentiary, like the majority of you, he was only familiar with the prison's overwhelming exterior. For those of you who have never been to Eastern State Penitentiary or are not familiar with its location, it is located only four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who have driven by the prison's foreboding walls, I am sure you found it hard not to wonder what it was like inside. You may have even created images in your mind similar to those commonly seen on television shows or in Hollywood movies, like the Rock. However, it is likely that your mental images are incorrect. Today, I would like to take you inside Eastern State Penitentiary and tell you a little about the prison's 175 year history, its philosophy and architecture, and its role in Philadelphia today. You will soon find why Eastern State Penitentiary is fascinating not only to those interested in history, criminology, and prisons, but also to those who are curious about psychology and sociology, as well Philadelphians or tourists, who want to go someplace that is interesting, out of the ordinary, and inexpensive.
Eastern State Penitentiary has been called Philadelphia's "most historic site" by Philadelphia Weekly. Its rich history began in Philadelphia almost two hundred years ago when severe overcrowding and scandals at the old Walnut Street Jail caused the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons to petition the state for funding to build a new kind of prison. With funding from the state, the society began planning Eastern State Penitentiary. Architect John Haviland won a $100 prize for his design. Haviland's design called for 250 cells, which would be arranged in seven single story cell blocks originating from a central hub. With this hub and spoke design, one guard could stand in the central rotunda and see down all seven cell blocks. Each cell was relatively large, 7 ½ ft by 12 ft, and attached to each cell was an individual exercise yard roughly the same size. The warden's quarters and administrative offices were to be located in the main building. A site know as cherry hill, because at the time it was the home of a cherry orchard on a hill two miles outside of Philadelphia, was chosen for the new prison. In 1822, construction began on Eastern State Penitentiary's massive walls which are 30 ft high and are 8 ft thick at the base. The walls around the penitentiary are nearly ½ mile long and enclose almost 11 acres. Seven years later, Charles Williams, Eastern State Penitentiary's first inmate was admitted; however, the construction of the original seven cell blocks was not completed until thirteen years after the cornerstone was laid. During this time, it was apparent that the new prison would not be big enough, and cell blocks 4 -7 were redesigned to be two stories. According to Sean Kelly, the present program director at ESP, by the completion of the original work, the penitentiary was the most expensive building in the United States. As the city grew around Eastern State Penitentiary, more cells were needed. Construction continued throughout the prison's history, squeezing in new buildings and cell blocks between the original seven. By the beginning of the 20th century, cell blocks thirteen and fourteen were constructed, each three stories, and Eastern State Penitentiary which was intended to hold 250 prisoners, was now home to some 1700 inmates. Eastern State Penitentiary, now a national historic landmark, was closed in 1971 because of outdated facilities and insufficient space and most of the penitentiary's inmates were transferred to The State Correctional Institute at Graterford. Eastern State Penitentiary was briefly used by the city later that year to house prisoners from Holmesburg Prison following a riot there. After that, Eastern State Penitentiary was completely abandoned by the city. In 1994, the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened Eastern State Penitentiary for historic tours on a daily basis. This is obviously only a brief, general overview of Eastern State Penitentiary's almost 200 year history. Throughout the years, Eastern State Penitentiary has been home to numerous elaborate escape attempts, bloody riots, and famous inmates like gangster Al Copone, bank robber Willie Sutton, and "Pep", a black lab which was allegedly sentenced to life at Eastern State Penitentiary by then Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot for killing his wife's cat.
Although Eastern State Penitentiary has a rich and interesting history, it is probably more famous because of its philosophy and architecture. While it seems that a prison's philosophy and its architecture would be two separate unrelated subjects, in Eastern State Penitentiary case they are inseparable. In the young United States, the PA Quakers were on the forefront of prison reform. Until this time, jails were simply holding pens for criminals until their public punishment. All criminals, regardless of crime, were housed together until their punishment. This made jails breeding grounds for disease and schools of violence. The Quakers viewed this system as both inhumane and ineffective. This, according to the History Channel Program "The Big House," prompted colonial governor William Penn, who was himself imprisoned in England for his religious beliefs, to, possibly for the first time, propose the idea of time as punishment. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was influenced by Penn and the Quaker idea of man's innate goodness. They believed a new system stressing total solitude, labor, and religious study could reform prisoners.
With these three things in mind, a new prison philosophy was developed and was reflected in the architecture of ESP. The idea, according to Glenn Sheehan, author of the article ESP - A study in Progressive Peneology, was that isolation would promote penitence and lead to rehabilitation. Hence, the term Penitentiary. The outside of the prison, with its massive walls and gothic like exterior, was designed to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who thought of committing a crime. The penitentiary standing high on a hill outside the city gave the message - this is not a place you want to be. When prisoners, like Charles Williams, arrived at ESP, a black hood was placed over his or her head outside. This prevented them from being seen by other prisoners, seeing other prisoners, and learning the prison's layout. They were led inside walls, but they never entered the hall of the cell block itself. Instead, the prisoner entered the cell from an outside exercise yard adjacent to the cell. Once inside the cell, the prisoner would remain there for the duration of his or her sentence, which was usually 2 to 2 ½ years. This is why Charles Williams saw little more of the penitentiary than those of you who have driven by it. Prisoners were allowed to spend one hour outside each day in the exercise yard adjoining their cell, weather permitting. However, prisoners in adjacent yards were never allowed outside at the same time to prevent communication. The prisoners could receive no mail. Visitors were not allowed, unless they were clergy or approved by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, and prisoners were not allowed to have any contact with the guards. Meals were delivered through a slot in the wall and prisoners were allowed one book - the bible. In addition, once a week the feeding holes would be opened, and a local clergy member, standing at the end of a cell block, would proclaim a religious service. During these services, a white sheet was strung down the center of the cell block preventing the inmates from finding out who occupied the cell across from them. At ESP inmates never knew who occupied the cells around them, allowing males and females to be housed next to each other. Because total isolation was a necessity, each cell was equipped with central heat, a flush toilet, and a spigot which provided water to bathe with. Pipes for the plumbing ran out into the cell blocks so guards could detect tapping. Absolute silence was required. Guards even wore socks over their boots when they walked down the cell blocks and the wheels of food carts were covered with leather. It was said that at ESP you could literally hear our clothes rustle as you walked down the cell block.
The architecture of the prison also reinforced its philosophy of repentance. Unlike the outside of ESP, which resembles a castle or dungeon, the inside is very different resembling a monastery. The doors to the cells were extremely low causing prisoners to bow as they entered or exited. All of the cell bocks and cells had arched ceilings, which gave the prison a religious feel and served to amplify sound in order to keep prisoners quiet and promote reflection. In addition, each cell was equipped with a small circular skylight, which provided light from heaven, and was referred to by prisoners as the eye of God, which kept a constant watch over them. One form of punishment at ESP included blocking off the skylights.
ESP's prison system became known as the Pennsylvania system and continued to be a model for prisons world wide until the 1960's. In 1913, ESP officially abandoned the solitary system mainly because of two reasons; however, in reality, this system broke down many decades earlier. One it was very expensive because prisoners who are confined to their cells can not be used to maintain the prison, wash clothes, prepare food, or work in factories which would provide revenue for the prisons. Second, isolation caused a large number of inmates to go crazy. After 1913, ESP operated as a congregate prison until it closed in 1971. The exercise yards were roofed over to make mess halls and factories. Two prisoners began to be placed in single cells and the inmates used the little remaining space inside the walls for exercise. ESP's philosophy of prison reform was one of the greatest sociological experiments in US history and was known as the great granite experiment.
Although ESP was closed in 1971, its history, philosophy, and architecture are still alive today as the penitentiary assumes a new role in Philadelphia - that of historic museum. In 1994, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, formerly Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which originally lobbied for Eastern State Penitentiary's construction nearly two centuries earlier, once again opened Eastern State Penitentiary doors on a daily basis, but this time it was for public tours. However, the 20 years that ESP was abandoned has had a detrimental effect on the site. The combined work of vandals and rain water have caused the quick deterioration of the prison and it is now considered a ruin. Visitors are required to wear a hard hat and sign a waiver before entering. But despite ESP's deterioration, it continues to grow as a tourist attraction. Last year, according to the PA Prison Society, the penitentiary attracted 35,000 visitors during its six month season from May to October, a new record. And last year the History Channel called ESP " a thriving tourist attraction." At ESP tourists can explore the historic prison. They take tours, find out what it feels like to be in one of the prisons cells - if only for a few minutes, and they stand in the central rotunda as hundreds of guards have done before, turning to peer down the cell blocks . They can view exhibits and movies on the penitentiary's history and there are also numerous site specific art exhibits in the prison's cells and cell blocks. In addition, ESP is home to several other events throughout the year including ghost tours at Halloween, a 5k road race, and the annual Bastille Day celebration which attracted over 6 thousand tourists last year. While many of you are reluctant to visit Philadelphia because of the lack of parking or expensive admission prices, I can tell you from personal experience that ESP is worth the trip, has a large free parking lot, and with your student ID admission will cost you only five dollars.
In conclusion, ESP has a rich two hundred year history. It has been praised, emulated, criticized, and abandoned. Its unique philosophy and architecture have influenced prisons the world over. Once on the forefront of prison reform, ESP now stands in testament to a radical experiment in the American prison system. Today, ESP continues to educate the thousands of tourists that enter its massive walls every year, not only about the penitentiary's history, but also its implications on the prison system as we know it today.