Changing prison design
In the decades following the American Revolution, a major intellectual export to come out of the newly-formed United States was prison design and reform. By the early nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania System of justice had been developed, replacing corporal punishment with Quaker-inspired isolation and labor. Proponents believed that criminals who reflected deeply on their crimes—by spending their days in 24 hours of silence—would become genuinely penitent for their crimes and would, as a result, be reformed.
Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became the archetype for this revolutionary system of justice. Equally notable for its architecture and mechanical advances, Eastern State served as the structural and ideological model for more than 300 prisons around the world. In architect John Haviland’s radial design, cellblocks of the prison extend outward from a central surveillance area. In the blocks were prisoners’ private cells, each with an adjacent outdoor exercise yard enclosed by a 10-foot wall. Prisoners’ cells were equipped with central heat, running water, flushing toilets, and skylights, at a time when such innovations were rarely available in homes, let alone prisons.
1996 World Monuments Watch
Over time, the Pennsylvania System was criticized for its reliance on extreme solitary confinement. Eastern State gradually moved to a congregate system, officially discontinuing use of the Pennsylvania System in 1913. In 1971, the penitentiary closed. Potential development of the site in the late 1980s spurred local and state preservation efforts. Limited tours of the site began in 1988 and the prison opened for its first full season of regular tours in 1994. The site was included on the World Monuments Watch in 1996 to highlight the preservation efforts that had begun, and to call attention to the need for resources and extensive conservation at the historic site.
Since the Watch
In the twenty years since the Watch, continued stabilization and conservation projects have enabled Eastern State to grow into a successful historic attraction. The roofs of many of the cellblocks have been restored and previously inaccessible spaces in the prison, including the hospital, synagogue, and Catholic chaplain’s office, have been restored thanks to public and private funding. With a year-round calendar of diverse programming and special events, including site-specific art installations, an annual haunted house-themed fundraiser, and a growing focus on educational initiatives, the site receives 300,000 visitors a year. In 2016, the site launched Prisons Today, an exhibit designed to foster discussion of contemporary issues in criminal justice.
Image top: ©Darryl Moran