In Summary

From the outside it resembles a medieval castle, with towering stone walls topped by battlements and turrets. But the fortifications were only ever for show. “There was no need to repel invaders and the turrets didn’t serve as watchtowers,” explains our tour guide, Dan. “The architecture was symbolic, designed to be foreboding and intimidating from the outside – a looming warning in the landscape against breaking the law.”

Dan is showing us around the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which now operates as a historical site with tourist appeal. When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the world’s first “modern” prison. It had been built at the urging of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organisation established forty years earlier and influenced by the Quaker ideals of Pennsylvania’s founders. The society counted such figures as Benjamin Franklin among its number.

These reformers wanted the penitentiary to mark a break with the brutality of the past, Dan tells us. The harsh physical punishment and ritual humiliation embodied in practices like public floggings and the stocks would be replaced by a humane system designed to reform wrongdoers through reflection and labour. In place of overcrowded, violent and unhygienic mass jails, where inmates would gamble, drink and fight, the new penitentiary was designed to hold prisoners in individual cells, safe from the negative influences and violent predations of their fellows. Because vice spread like an infectious disease – or so they thought – isolation, contemplation and prayer would lead to true penitence and rehabilitation by bringing fallen men and women closer to God. To counteract the dangers of idleness, the inmates would be put to work, learning a craft from tradesmen who doubled as warders.

The penitentiary gave architectural expression to the emerging view that systems of bureaucratic organisation and control could impose order on the unruly reality of human behaviour. The cells were arranged along corridors radiating off a central chamber, allowing maximum supervision from a single, central vantage point. A technological marvel for its time, the prison had a central heating system, and each cell was equipped with running water and a toilet.

As Dan shows us through the dark and cramped spaces, illuminated only by a small skylight, he explains that each cell originally led onto an equally tiny exercise yard at the rear. Inmates were permitted in the yard twice a day, for two half-hour recreation breaks. The breaks were staggered, to stop prisoners communicating across the courtyard wall. The other twenty-three hours of each day were to be spent alone in the cell, working, studying the Bible and contemplating past sins.

Written by Peter Mares. This article was originally published on Inside Story. Read the original article