Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary. Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system” or separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
The Pennsylvania System 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.
Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.
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 in 1929. Visitors spoke with prisoners in their cells, proving that inmates were not isolated, though the prisoners themselves were not allowed to have any visits with family or friends during their stay.
When Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842, he wrote, “The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow, and daily, tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow, and daily, tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Most of the early prisoners were petty criminals incarcerated for various robbery and theft charges (muggers, pickpockets, purse-snatchers, burglars, etc.) and the first-time offenders often served two years.
The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. While some have argued that the Pennsylvania System was Quaker-inspired, there is little evidence to support this; the organization that promoted Eastern State’s creation, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (today’s Pennsylvania Prison Society) was less than half Quaker, and was led for nearly fifty years by Philadelphia’s Anglican bishop, William White. 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.
In reality, the guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, including dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called “The Hole”, an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.
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