2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA
Our tour begins in one of the eeriest places on earth: The castle-like Eastern State Penitentiary is a grim monument to the continual evolution of the criminal justice system. When the penitentiary opened in the late 1820s, it was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country. It was also the world’s first true penitentiary, meaning that it was intended not merely to imprison criminals, but to reform them. At the time, the dominant model dictated prisoners should be made to live and work together in silence. The penitentiary offered an alternative that was quickly adopted by over 300 prisons worldwide. It became a massive tourist attraction, as well, with 10,000 visitors at its peak in the late 1850s. Here, inmates were to be confined separately – the first instance of institutionalized solitary confinement. The hope was that, given adequate solitude to reflect on their crimes, they would find redemption. To minimize the possibility for human interaction, each cell was equipped with running water. (This was at a time when President Andrew Jackson used a chamber pot.) The concrete cells were also outfitted with a single glass skylight, representing the “Eye of God.” The penitentiary’s radial floor plan, with seven cell blocks emanating from the central guard tower like spokes, allowed every cell to have access to its own high-walled exercise area. The inmates couldn’t communicate with one another, but guards visited three times a day. At first, they had to slide the prisoners’ meals through a tiny portal that connected the cell to the hallway. This quickly proved impractical, however, and the portals were replaced with small doors, so low that the inmates would have to bow down to enter or exit. Ultimately, it’s hard to believe the penitentiary was ever successful in its lofty mission. Charles Dickens visited the prison shortly after it was completed. He later wrote that, “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing.... I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body...” Regardless of its intention, the cruel reality was that the “gentlemen” Dickens referred to tortured the inmates – dousing them with freezing water, restraining them for days on end, and putting the worst offenders in a pit called “The Klondike,” where they had no light, no human contact, and barely any food for up to two weeks. By the early 20th century, the “separate system” was officially abandoned, although in reality it had crumbled years earlier as a result of overcrowding. By the 1920s, over two thousand prisoners were being held in a space designed for 300. The penitentiary eventually closed in 1970. After almost twenty-five years of abandonment, the penitentiary reopened to the public. This time, as a museum. Other than renovations required for public safety, much of the penitentiary has been left to slowly decay. It seems a fitting tribute to the roughly 75,000 men and women who served time there. Just a short distance away from the shadow of Eastern State Penitentiary is Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This green boulevard is also known as Philadelphia’s Museum Mile, and it’s studded with many of the city’s cultural gems, including its spectacular sculpture gardens. Leaving the penitentiary, head west on Fairmount Avenue, towards North 22nd Street. Just a short distance away from the shadow of Eastern State Penitentiary is Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This green boulevard is also known as Philadelphia’s Museum Mile, and it’s studded with many of the city’s 5 cultural gems, including its spectacular sculpture gardens. Leaving the penitentiary, head west on Fairmount Avenue, towards North 22nd Street.