Cell Block 1 is in ruins now, as is the rest of the prison. Walking down the nearly empty corridor past the carcasses of cells meant to keep their occupants in complete isolation to contemplate their penitence is an eery experience. Some doors are open, allowing a view of crumbling walls and rusted bed frames inside. Others stand closed, trapping the ghosts of prisoners past inside their small cubic homes.

Cell Block 1

This deserted prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, is actually one of the most popular tourist destinations in Philadelphia. Think of it as the Alcatraz of the East Coast, with more historical significance to the way prisons have developed, and without the major movie to prop it up in cultural lingo, the icon of what modernity in prisons once was.

Eastern State Penitentiary stands today as a reminder of prisons past, of a time when America made a decision that isolating the bad elements away from the rest of society would yield better results than any other method.

Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was truly modern, both from a design standpoint (it had plumbing at a time when even the President still utilized a chamber pot, as well as a state-of-the-art heating system) and from the viewpoint of modernizing criminal punishment. Until this point, there had been no real prisons in America. Those who broke the law were kept in communal jails for short periods of time, and given some sort of penitence – a fine or their life, or anything in between.

I wander into a refurbished cell. It is small, with a door in the back leading to a private exercise pen. When Eastern State opened, it ushered in the “Pennsylvania system” of prisons: prisoners kept in total isolation. These private exercise areas were in lieu of the larger “yards” that most prisons are built with today. Prisoners were not even allowed to communicate with each other, not to mention see each other. The idea was that isolation and prayer would lead to rehabilitation.

A refurbished cell

The state of most cells

Other cell blocks look similar, and the audio tour included with admission takes me into several of them. In later years, as the need to house more inmates overtook the need for isolation, larger blocks were built with smaller cells meant to be shared. The private exercise pens were roofed over and turned into other buildings, and a large yard was constructed.

Looking back down Cell Block 1

One such “roofed over” area was turned into the prison synagogue, and thanks to the generosity of the Philadelphia Jewish community, this is the one part of the prison that has been fully restored. The rest is still a ruin.

The restored synagogue in the prison

I join a small private tour of the hospital wing. These small additional tours run regularly of several different spaces, and are led by staff. We marvel at the operating room, physiology lab, and other decaying spaces. This operating room saw all sorts of procedures, from emergencies to plastic surgery, performed by prison doctors.

Prison operating room

Eastern State Penitentiary officially closed in 1971. The building was too old and expensive to maintain, and America was ushering in a new era of mass incarceration that required larger and more modern prisons. An exhibit, “Prisons Today,” discusses the trends in prisons. In 1971, when this prison closed, there were around 300,000 people imprisoned in the United States. Today, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 2.2 million, or nearly 1% of the adult population.

What is more, violent crime has largely stayed at a level consistent with the 1970s, despite this 600% increase in the prisoner population.

A graph of incarceration rates stands in the yard. The first red column is from 1971, when the prison closed. The last column is today.

So what happened? “Prisons Today” tells us. The War on Crime and War on Drugs criminalized drug usage, and added new twists like “Three Strikes.” The result: millions of nonviolent offenders being incarcerated for lengthy terms for relatively petty crimes. And prisons have not been remotely effective in their original purpose of rehabilitation. According to a 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice, nearly 77% of released prisoners were rearrested within 5 years.

Felons released from prison – even those on minor drug possession charges – find that the country has invested heavily in their incarceration, and barely at all in their acclimatization back into the world. Even if prison rehabilitation worked, society wouldn’t believe it. Programs helping reformed criminals find employment are few and far between, mental health programs are poorly funded, and some states so disbelieve in the ability of a criminal to turn his/her life around that a convicted felon is barred forever from even voting. (This has been used in the South as another method of suppressing the black vote.) So is it any wonder recidivism is so common?

A visit to Eastern State Penitentiary is a reminder that higher walls and more guards don’t lead to a drop in crime. It is an eye-opening glimpse into the fact that prison reform is sorely needed in our society, but is not talked about often enough. One look at a selection of reading materials tells the sad story that too many of our children grow up experiencing the pain from a family with a member in prison.

Children’s books like this one are necessary in our society now

Eastern State Penitentiary is not only an important – and captivating – tourist destination for everyone visiting Philadelphia, it is also a reminder to learn from the mistakes made in our society’s past. It stands as a crumbling beacon that maybe more guards and more cells are not the way to a safer society.

One thought on “Eastern State Penitentiary and Prison Reform

  1. Jonathan, thanks for an eye-opening view not only of the physical structure itself, but asking good questions about our current system. I’m not sure that the only purposes of the criminal system are deterrence and rehabilitation. Punishment also give expression to society’s abhorrence of the crime committed, although it seems to me that this part applies to the more serious crimes. In any event, it has caused me to think more about this subject. Thanks again.

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