Silence and isolation at the Eastern State Penitentiary

Visiting an old prison is always a unique experience. The atmosphere that reigns there is often oppressive, lugubrious, and sad. Old prisons always remind us of this dark side of humanity, a side that we would sometimes rather forget. But old prisons are also rich in history and allow us to see how far we have come in the treatment of prisoners.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is a prison that has had a considerable influence on the US prison system. Built in 1829, the prison revolutionized the methods of imprisonment. Rather than putting several prisoners in the same cell, the prisoners were placed in an individual cell and had no contact with other prisoners. This was done in the hope to limit the spread of diseases, but also to facilitate the rehabilitation of prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell (with a running-water toilet, a revolution for the time) and a small private courtyard for exercises. When a prisoner left his cell, his head was covered to prevent him from being recognized by another prisoner. And visits were forbidden.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Don’t you think it’s a bit spooky?

As I said, it was hoped that this way of doing things would enable a better rehabilitation of prisoners. Fewer punishments, more introspection. The way of doing things at the Eastern State Penitentiary was so revolutionary that the penitentiary became a real tourist attraction. Even the author Charles Dickens visited it. Hundreds of prisons around the world were built using the same system.

In 1913, however, the isolation system was abandoned, since space was running out. The cells were modified to accommodate two prisoners. Contacts were allowed between the prisoners (in sports teams for example) and they could do their daily exercise in a larger yard. The prison was in function until the early 1970s.

Eastern State Penitentiary
An old cell

Among the other highlights, let’s note that the penitentiary hosted Al Capone for a few months (and he was allowed to decorate his cell with luxurious furniture) and that a dog that killed the governor’s cat is one of the notable prisoners (although in fact, the dog have been brought to the prison to raise the morale of the prisoners). There were some attempts to escape, but only one prisoner managed to escape without getting caught and disappeared into the wild.

After its closure, the city of Philadelphia considered the idea of demolishing the penitentiary to build a shopping centre or luxury apartments. The Eastern State Penitentiary has been abandoned for years, until citizens convince the mayor of the importance of preserving the place.

Do not be intimidated by its impenetrable castle look! The visit of the Eastern State Penitentiary is a little spooky, but it is highly interesting!

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