On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I stopped at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829, this was the most famous and expensive prison of its time. Tourists and researchers came from around the world to study this innovative prison system, including Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens.
Eastern State Penitentiary was famous because it focused on encouraging penance, rather than punishment, thus coining the term “penitentiary.” Prisoners were isolated in separate cells and kept in silence in order to reflect on their behavior and become penitent. The guards watched the inmates from a center rotunda with the seven cell blocks radiating from the middle. Each prisoner had his or her own cell, running water, flush toilet, skylight, and outdoor exercise yard.
Over the years, changes and additions to the prison ended the solitary confinement, increased the number of cell blocks, added buildings, and increased prisoner interaction. The prison population also increased much beyond the original capacity. One-person cells now housed two or three people and an upper level was added to new cell blocks.
The prison was closed in 1971 after 142 years and sat dormant and abandoned for 23 years. It was reopened for tours in 1994 and has since been immortalized in several films.
An MP3 player is provided with admittance, allowing for a self-guided audio tour that helps clarify the various years of construction and changes to the prison. Around the grounds there are displays containing prisoner recollections from interviews, historical information, and artist installations, while the website offers additional research sources. Eastern State also encourages reflection and discussion on the historical growth in the U.S. rate of incarceration and explores issues of race and capitol punishment with “The Big Graph,” a 16-foot tall structure on the grounds.