The hospital cellblock
Blog Post

Eastern State Penitentiary Today

The hospital cellblock

In August 2016, Kathryn Doyle visited Eastern State Penitentiary, a site included on the 1996 World Monuments Watch. 

Eastern State Penitentiary reflects the success that is possible in preservation and the potential in using preservation as a way to connect the past, present, and future. Like many historic places, Eastern State faces an ongoing need for conservation and the required resources, but its record of growth, expansion, and innovative educational initiatives signals an enduring legacy.

Eastern State remembers its past by highlighting the advances made there and by recognizing the shortcomings and unanticipated consequences of its plans for reformation. The tours, exhibits, and programming tell the story of the site’s origins and its architectural and historic significance as the world’s first true penitentiary. Rooted in the ideals of the Enlightenment and guided by the goal of improving society in the newly democratic United States, Eastern State was an early example of the Pennsylvania system. Designed to reform criminals through labor, reflection, and extreme isolation, this method was criticized by many as inhumane, forcing inmates at Eastern State to spend 24 hours of each day in solitary confinement.

One critic of the system was Charles Dickens, who, after visiting Eastern State in 1842, questioned the morality of solitary confinement in his American Notes for General Circulation. “I believe,” he wrote, “that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and…I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature.” As a result of criticisms like these, in addition to overcrowding, Eastern State gradually moved to a congregate system, officially discontinuing use of the Pennsylvania system in 1913. In 1971, the penitentiary closed its doors.

Equipped with the lessons from its past, Eastern State makes connections to today for its 300,000 annual visitors through artist installations, special exhibits, and an increasing focus on educational initiatives. The site elevates awareness and fosters discussion of contemporary issues in the criminal justice system, including mental health, racial inequality, and social justice concerns such as income disparity. The outdoor sculpture The Big Graph charts the growth of US incarceration rates since 1900, illustrates racial breakdown of the American prison population, and compares incarceration rates in every country in the world; with 2.2 million prisoners, the US has the highest rate by far. In 2016, Eastern State launched Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration as a companion piece to The Big Graph. Designed to encourage reflection, support dialogue, and elicit personal connections, the interactive exhibit examines how changes in laws, policing, and sentencing have contributed to such growth in US prisons, disproportionately impacting poor and disenfranchised communities.

By examining contemporary issues, Eastern State examines the world today and looks ahead to the future. Continued preservation efforts ensure the survival of the site for future generations, while also promoting the penitentiary’s role as a site of conscience. Challenging visitors to reflect on the suffering that Dickens wrote about in the past, and fostering conversation about difficult questions for the future, Eastern State encourages visitors to ask themselves, What do you want the future to be? What is your role in shaping the future? 




Also by this author: A Local Landmark: TWA Flight Center; Russian Heritage at Risk.