Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary 

Eastern State Penitentiary is a nearly 200 year old prison which operated in the city of Philadelphia, opening in 1829. It had come to be more-or-less unused following its closure in 1971, and until the mid-1980's it sat decaying amid the city that had come to grow around it. What makes this place so intriguing to us though, is what happened after the city purchased the jail from the state in 1980.
Instead of the all-too-common chain of events which typically end in the razing of old buildings to make way for new ones, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force (formed by a group of archaeologists, historians, and preservationists), along with mayor Wilson Goode, were able to save the old facility, and see it fostered into a nationally celebrated historic site. These forward-thinking individuals understood the importance of preserving the old penitentiary for future generations to see, walk through, and learn from. Allowing visitors to experience the facility first-hand, to touch the cold stonework, feel the cool air of the cave-like cell blocks, rather than simply reading about it in history books. This kind of interaction imbues a unique understanding not obtainable in any other way.

Rather than taking what would have surely been the much easier (and far more common) road of commercial redevelopment, they decide to transform the old jail into something that truly benefited the public, something that now stands as a leading example of architectural preservation and adaptive reuse. Today Eastern State Penitentiary is open to the public on a daily basis. For a nominal fee of admittance one can wander the grounds at their leisure. To walk these tall echoing corridors, to look out through these slotted windows, and to touch these cold stones which shaped the not only the jail itself, but our nation's penitentiary system as a whole, is the only way to properly appreciate the history found here.

As stated earlier - Eastern State Penitentiary was opened for use in 1829. It is considered to be the first true penitentiary in the world, in that each inmate was housed in a solitary confinement with minimal human contact. The belief of the time was that in being housed in such a manner, the inmate would be able to open up to God, and properly pay penance for their crimes. To further this thought in the prisoner's minds each cell was equipped with a single slotted window, representing the ever-present eye of God. Each day the incarcerated were allowed out of their cells for one hour, during that time they were required to wear hood which prevented interactions with other prisoners.

By the year 1913 Eastern State had abolished the solitary confinement concept, as it was believed to have had adverse effects upon the inmates. Instead of assisting in their rehabilitation as intended, it seemed to have induced an array on mental illnesses. This was in no way helped by the actions of the guards and counseling staff who punished inmates in a variety of methods, most of which degrading to the prisoner, and clearly sadistic in nature. An example of such disciplinary acts include “The Hole”, which was a lightness pit dug out of the earth under block 14. A prisoner could spend as long as two weeks in this chamber with a minimal amount of food, no sunlight, and zero human contact. Yet another punishment, which was used during the winter months, was to take the prisoner outside during below-freezing temperatures and hose them down with cold water.

On June 23rd, 1966 Eastern State Penitentiary was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

View from the central guard tower. It was a dreary and often rainy day when we visited.

The gloomy weather created an ominous environment within the old jail, with sparse light and deep shadows.

Christmas 1960.

Some areas of the building are still far from weather proofed.

A few of the old cells were converted to barber shops for inmates.

Police barricade the prison entrance during a riot in 1933.

Post-riot image from 1961.

As per the Eastern State Penitentiary website -
"Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" was a black Labrador Retriever admitted to Eastern State Penitentiary on August 12, 1924. Prison folklore tells us that Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot used his executive powers to sentence Pep to Life Without Parole for killing his wife’s cherished cat."

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