The history of Eastern State Prison

When you think of a jail (the building not just a single cell) what do you think of? Take away the barbed wire and fences and bars, and most jails look remarkably like any other type of building. Local or city jails often exist within other buildings such as police stations or courts. County and federal prisons? Again, take away the security and they could almost pass for something else. But there is one prison in the area that is very different. if you walk past this building you know instinctively what this building is for. You know who lives here and why. The building inspires fear, awe, reverence, and a desire to never ever go there. That’s exactly what the architect had in mind….

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Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia, PA was the first every attempt by the state to use incarceration and specifically solitary confinement as a form of punishment. In the 1800’s punishment generally consisted of fines, public humiliation (such as the stocks), whipping, banishment to a penal colony, and of course execution. American justice was often simply a variation of the justice systems of Europe.

In Europe often the church would be responsible for punishment for “crimes” in part because in many areas, the church WAS the state, or they were very closely tired together, almost to be inseparable. The church historically has opposed capital punishment, and so they developed a system of punishment in line with the Catholic or Christian doctrines. Whenever possible, prisoners were kept in isolation from each other, keeping in the tradition of silence and penitence typical in monastic orders.

By the 1600’s some courts in the Netherlands began experimenting with imprisonment coupled with hard labor. By the end of the 18th century large groups of men woman & children were housed in communal jail cells, some chained to the wall, sleeping on bare floors with little heat or food. If they could afford to pay the jailer, they would live and sleep in better conditions. John Howard, a sheriff in Bedfordshire England began studying the European prisons and concluded that long term prisoners should be held in isolation for “long hours of thoughtfulness and reflection”. With innovative construction, supervision could be done with less expense, and less overhead, would reduce the spread of disease, and ultimately reform the convict.

After Howard reported his findings and opinions, nothing happened initially. Gaol fever was rampant, killing prisoners and citizens alike by the hundreds, even thousands. The US colonies were now no longer part of the British empire, so England couldn’t just ship its prisoners there. They established penal colonies in Australia and New Zealand, but eventually pressure mounted to build full scale penitentiaries. It was hoped that isolation and improved sanitary conditions would reduce the spread of the disease in the prisons.
By 1816 most of the isolation based prisons were converted to traditional prison models. Cost was a large factor in the decision. In the county of Gloucestershire, 60% of the county budget went to the maintaining of the prisons. As England was moving away from solitary confinement, the US was moving towards it…

A group of reformers, called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (later shorted to just the Pennsylvania Prison Society) was founded by members of the clergy, the law, and the medical establishment. The group was aware f the failures in Europe but felt that they could overcome the obstacles that caused the European models to fail. In 1790 they attempted to modify an existing prison, the Walnut St prison, but the experiment failed, largely due to overcrowding. The Society believed that a larger reason for failure was that they were modifying an existing prison, which proved difficult and required modification of their ideas. If they built a new prison from scratch, they could design it exactly as they had envisioned. At about the same time as the Walnut Street jail was being modified, NY was also trying its hand at solitary confinement, also by modifying an existing jail. By 1823 the NY experiment was deemed a failure, much like the Walnut St jail, and largely for the same reasons…

The members of the Prison Society agreed on the concept of solitary confinement but disagreed over whether or not there should be forced labor. Construction began on Western State Prison in Pittsburgh in 1818, and Eastern State Prison in 1821. WSP opened in 1826. Inadequate heating, bad ventilation, and a lack of truly sanitary facilities led to the closure of the prison within 7 years, and it was soon torn down.  This did not bode well, but by the time WSP closed its doors, the doors at ESP had already opened. And the world was watching….

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The design of each cell was important as the design of the prison as a whole. Each cell needed plumbing facilities and heat, as well as room enough to exercise and perform labor. Ventilation was also essential, but more importantly, they had to prevent escapes. Two architects submitted designs, and the circular design of William Strickland was chosen. During the design phase, few initially supported the design offered by John Haviland, but slowly he gained more supporters. After agreeing to Strickland’s design, those in charge eventually changed their minds and added Havilands outer wall design. Shortly after construction began, the prison decided to go with all of Havilland’s plan, and Strickland was sacked as the head architect and builder. The reason was simple: on paper, Haviland’s plan was cheaper to build, cheaper to maintain. As originally planned, 250 inmates would be housed here, with construction budgeted at 100,000 (1.2 million in 2002 money).

One of the first things built was the outer wall, which made use of the gothic style including castellated guard towers, a portcullis and blank windows. It was meant to be a physical reminder to the citizens of their fate should they choose to break the law. This would be the focus of a lot of criticism as it was expensive, and deemed by many to be an unnecessary waste of money. As the construction went along, the design changed often. Haviland was a relative inexperienced architect and builder and as he went along he learned a lot, which caused him to make design changes for the better. Furthermore, before construction was even half way finished it was clear that the prison was going to be too small for the number of prisoners slated to occupy it.

The original design had 7 spokes coming from a central hub where the guards would be located. From here they could see each cell block. After the first 4 blocks were built, the design changed to add a second level of cells. The final design provided for 450 individual cells, and by 1936 311 of them had been constructed.  Heating and ventilation proved most difficult. Stoves generated heat which was fed through pipes, but the accompanying carbon dioxide sickened many inmates, so a change was made to hot water generated stream which was then fed into each cell. Unfortunately the discharge pipes for the privies were located close to the hot water pipes, resulting in a rather disgusting smell that would cling to you if you just walked thru the halls….

Before construction was finished, a war was going on over the concept of isolation. As would be expected, expense and the affect of isolation on the inmates sanity were the primary complaints. One of the biggest detractors was Charles Dickens who considered isolation to be inhumane. most criticisms were ignored by the state, which pressed on with construction. Tourists, foreign dignitaries and government leaders all took tours. Indeed the world was watching.

From the start isolation proved nearly impossible. Inmates were used in housekeeping and the kitchen, or to make repairs. Despite efforts to prevent it, prisoners could communicate by tapping on the water pipes, or by throwing weighted notes thru the skylights into the cells next to them. The skylights were nailed shut. But this did not stop the prisoners from communicating or from seeing each other. Forced labor was done in each cell without the benefit of machinery, a distinct disadvantage compared to the forced labor done in other prisons, or in factories on the outside. After many years of success, the prisoners were left to make good for use in the prison only, and not for sale to the outside world.

Criticism of the solitary method continued well after ESP was built. Any look at ESP though must be weight against conditions at other prisons at the time, not against current prisons facilities. Most prisons barely had heat (if at all), poor ventilation and little if any natural light. Most cells were much smaller then the ones at ESP. Cells at Sing-Sing in NY measured 3 feet 3 inches by seven feet, barely big enough for a bed and a toilet. Labor was forced and silence was mandatory when outside the cell. Those who favored the solitary method as well those who argued against both often ignored the failures and inadequacies of their own systems. The prison ultimately failed to produce reforms, and was more expensive then traditional designs which was a major impediment to it being implemented widespread in the US. That’s not to say that numerous states didn’t copy the Haviland model. Many did, however the design was quite popular around the world, including England, where the concept had been tried and deemed a failure. It was Havilands innovative architecture design that gave others reason to reexamine the idea, and to try it again.

In 1937 the prison removed the old portcullis and installed a new front gate not in line with rest of the facade. The promise of reform was no more. This was now a penitentiary like any other. Eventually a new ESP was built and throughout the 20th century a debate was waged over the utility of maintaining the prison, whose very design was now obsolete. In 1971, the 1175 inmates were transferred to other institutions and the prison was closed. As would be expected, vandals broke in and destroyed things, a jungle of plants and bushes overgrew the entire property, even inside the buildings. In 1974 Mayor Frank Rizzo suggested demolishing Eastern State to construct a criminal justice center. Nothing happened for nearly 10 years, and in 1988 Eastern State Task Force, a group of architects, preservationists and historians, is formed. Mayor Wilson Goode urges the Redevelopment Authority to reject all proposals for commercial use of the property.

By 1994 the buildings were stabilized and 10,000 people took a tour of the historic site. The following year the mental ward scenes of 12 Monkeys were filmed here. Other movies were filmed here including Return to Paradise. Steve Buscemi scouted the site for a movie he was working on and he ultimately rejected the site because of rules against making changes to the site. He took an interest in the preservation efforts, and eventually narrated the audio tour which premieres in 2003. By now over 1 million dollars has been spent renovating the rotunda and important cells such as the occupied by Al Capone.

The prison is located at Fairmount Ave & 22nd Ave in Philadelphia and is open from April 1 until just after Thanksgiving. Private tours can be scheduled at any time, even during the winter. For information call 215 236-5111 x12. One of the more fascinating things I read was that the prison was a popular tourist attraction, as popular as Niagara Falls or the Capitol Building. Between 1862 and 1872 over 100,000 people visited the prison.

For more information visit the official website

Read about the tour of Eastern State Prison here

Read my take on Terror Behind the Walls here (a Halloween attraction held in the confines of ESP)

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3 responses to this post.

  1. there are many tourists attractions to choose from, the only problem that we have is the money to spend to see most of them ~

    Reply

  2. […] Read about the history of the prison here […]

    Reply

  3. […] Read about the history of the prison here […]

    Reply

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