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The Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

February 12th, 2008 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places
 
 

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former state prison in the United States. It is located on Fairmount Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 5 blocks north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was significant architecturally, influencing the design of 250 other prisons, and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Designed by John Haviland and opened in 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary. Its revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the "Pennsylvania System" or Separate system, originated and encouraged solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation. It was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn System (also known as the New York System), which held that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment (Sing Sing prison was an example of the Auburn system). Although the Auburn system was favored in the United States, Eastern State's radial floor plan and system of solitary confinement was the model for over 300 prisons worldwide. The name "Penitentiary" comes from the word "penance". The original goal was for prisoners to want to open up to God, thus seeking penance.

The original design of the cells were separated by a metal door and a wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church. The doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack to a security guard. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the "Eye of God", hinting the prisoners that God was always watching them. Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn't communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners would be out at the same time. If a prisoner were to leave the cell, an armed guard would accompany them and wrap them in a hood.

The original design of the building was for one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, it was already over capacity. From then on, all the other cell blocks were two floors. Toward the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily built due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell block 15 was for the worst prisoners, and the guards were gated off.

In the courtyards, there were plenty of places for recreation. The dugout for the baseball field also doubled as a football goal post. Other games like bocci were played in the courtyards. Later, a small paved road used for relay races was put down. Extra security was added on the top of the prison walls as family and friends would throw over notes, drugs, and even weapons.

Eastern State was viewed as a progressive reform in that it eliminated many of the excesses of physical punishment in colonial America. Despite this, it was widely believed (then and now) to have caused significant mental illness among its prisoners due to its solitary confinement. The system quickly collapsed due to overcrowding problems. By 1913, Eastern State officially abandoned the solitary system and operated as a congregate prison until it closed in 1970 (Eastern State was briefly used to house city inmates in 1971 after a riot at Holmesburg Prison).

The prison was one of the largest public-works projects of the early republic, and was a tourist destination in the 19th century. Notable visitors included Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville while notable inmates included Willie Sutton and Al Capone.

The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. Each cell even included a personal exercise yard. Proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.

On April 3, 1945, a major prison escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton) who dug a 97-foot tunnel under the prison wall to freedom.

It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

The prison was closed and abandoned in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, about 31 miles west of Eastern State. The City of Philadelphia purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping it. The site had several proposals, including a mall, and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the old prison walls, as the surrounding area was then full of crime.

In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. In 1994, Eastern State opened to the public for historic tours.

[Source: Wikipedia]

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