Historic Structures

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Date added: November 23, 2009 Categories: Pennsylvania Prison Gothic Revival

The Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the prime exponent of the Pennsylvania system of imprisonment, a system which was of limited influence in the United States, but was studied and applied widely in Europe and South America. This system, developed primarily by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1787, was grounded in the Quaker concept of reflection in solitude as well as an abhorrence of the 18th century practice in Philadelphia of sentencing all offenders to public hard labor. In 1821, the state legislature appointed a building commission to oversee the construction of a 250-cell prison, based on the principle of solitary confinement. After a public competition for the design of the prison, won by John Haviland, in 1823, the cornerstone was laid. Haviland's plan called for seven cellblocks radiating out of a common center, all enclosed by massive stone walls resembling medieval battlements. Each solitary cell had its own exercise yard and its own ventilation and lighting vent representing great improvements over previous prison facilities. The first prisoner was admitted in 1829, and for the next 85 years, with many enlargements and additions, the prison implemented the system of solitary confinement. In 1913 the system was abolished, and some 50 years later the penitentiary was closed. Today, it still stands at 21st and Fairmount Avenue, presenting much the same appearance as did in 1829.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which was built to apply the Pennsylvania System of imprisonment, served as a model for numerous other prisons throughout the world. Although of limited influence in the United States, the prison and the Pennsylvania System influenced, and continue to influence, penalogical practices in Europe, Asia, and Latin Americia.

The Pennsylvania System, which development led to the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, resulted from a movement in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution to improve conditions in prisons. Prominent in the struggle to end the barbaric treatment of prisoners were Dr. Benjamin Rush, and the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which was founded on May 8, 1787. Influenced somewhat by certain prison methods in Europe, the Society, nevertheless, largely developed on its own the idea that became the heart of the Pennsylvania System, solitary confinement. As early as April 1790, the Society succeeded in persuading the Commonwealth's legislature to provide for solitary confinement cells at the Walnut Street Prison. The cells were constructed, but the great number of prisoners in the jail prevented the rigid application of solitary confinement. Moreover, the other important aspect of the Pennsylvania System, that the prisoners should work, never was applied. Despite the setback at the Walnut Street Prison, the Society continued to press for the broad adoption of its plan, and in 1801 memorialized the legislature to build a prison that would be based on solitary confinement. Some 20 years later, the legislators finally appropriated $100,000 for the erection of a prison at Philadelphia based on the idea of solitary confinement. No provision was made at first apropos the idea that the inmates should work, but the legislature had accepted that idea by April 1829, just before the first prisoner entered the new prison.

The commission responsible for constructing the prison realized that the philosophy behind its erection, solitary confinement, demanded a new design. A competition was held, and John Haviland, already a successful architect, won the $100 premium when his design was selected on May 24, 1822. Perhaps the plan for the prison's exterior stimulated the commission to choose Haviland's design, for the architect's drawing of the exterior certainly reflected the commission's requirement that

"The exterior of a solitary prison should exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery that awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls."

It was within the interior, however, that Haviland's design achieved real significance. He provided for a central rotunda from which radiated seven cell blocks, each block containing solitary confinement cells. Even if Haviland had been influenced by some radial prison designs in Europe, the English-born architect gave that concept its fullest and best realization. Furthermore, in his design, Haviland provided notable improvements in light, heat, ventilation, and space in the cells. All in all, Haviland's design Represents an excellent example of the architectural application of a philosophical point of view and it is not strange that his prison was to be widely copied, especially, as it was far in advance of the usual prison of his time.

The cornerstone was placed on May 22, 1823, and the first prisoner was admitted on October 25, 1829. Previous to the laying of the cornerstone, the commission had selected a site of a little over 10 acres in size about two and a half miles northwest of City Hall. As construction proceeded, the great front wall arose, 30 feet high, 12 feet thick at the base, and 670 feet long. In the center, was the main administration building, dominated by two fifty-foot towers. Behind the forbidding front arose the cell blocks. The first cell blocks were one-story and held 38 cells each. Subsequently, as a result of increasing the capacity of the prison from 250 to 400, the remaining four cell blocks each had two-stories. When fully completed, the prison had cost a total of $772,600.

Once completed, the prison epitomized the Pennsylvania System. Individual cells existed for each prisoner, the rooms measuring 12 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 10 feet high, and each had an unroofed exercise yard attached to it. Every effort was made by the staff to enforce the solitary aspect, especially when prisoners were in the exercise yards. Moreover, a prisoner had to wear a mask or hood when out of his cell. This practice existed until 1904. The other aspect of the system, work, was also applied from the opening of the prison. Labor, it was hoped, would teach the prisoners trades land the products of the work would help pay the expense of the operation of the prison. Shoe-making and weaving became the basic labor activities and remained so, until an act of the Commonwealth in 1897, the result of free labor's opposition, put all but an end to such work in prison.

From the first, those responsible for the Eastern State Penitentiary spoke and wrote glowingly of the success of the Pennsylvania System. Nevertheless a public investigation of the prison in 1834-35 proved that the system lacked perfection, and that the guards had already turned to time-honored methods of enforcing discipline.

In addition, due to the prison's elevation, there was a chronic deficiency in the water supply. Similarly, once the commission decided to omit Havilan's proposed central heating system, the prison was plagued by a succession of inefficient heating methods. Despite such troubles, the fame of the prison and the system grew during the 19th century, resulting in generally improved treatment of prisoners throughout the world. Surprisingly in the United States, it was an alternate penal system that was overwhelmingly adopted, the congregate system. This regimen, exemplified at the penitentiary at Ossining, New York, called for the prisoners working in groups, but under strict silence. Thus, when the Pennsylvania system was abolished at Eastern State Penitentiary, the system passed out of practice in the United States.