History Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

On 22 October 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary received a young man convicted of burglary as its first prisoner. If convict Charles Williams's experience reflected the expressed institutional policy, he would have entered through the metal-studded oak door and proceeded through the entry passage to an intake facility. There he would have been examined by a physician, "stripped of his .... clothes, and clothed in the uniform of the prison .... being first bathed and cleaned." Williams would have been divested of all his personal belongings and these items put in storage until his release. A clerk methodically logged the following information under the appropriate headings:
Date of sentence: 1829 October 22
Names: No. 1 Charles Williams
Age: 18
Nativity: Harrisburg, Penna
Occupation: Farmer
Complexion: Light Black
Eyes: Black
Hair: Curly Blk
Stature: 5 ft 7 1/2 in
Feet: 11 inches
Williams would have been hooded, if not to prohibit him from seeing other prisoners, at least then to keep him from getting a sense of the prison's layout, and led to an exercise yard on Cellblock 1, 2 or 3.

There, he would have entered a wood door and an iron grate into the yard and then would have passed through another pair of doors to his cell. His hood removed, Williams would have been introduced to the stark interior of his cell: an approximately 12' x 7' space furnished with a bed that could be folded against the wall, clothes rail, seat, shelf, toilet, water tap, and vents for fresh air and heat. A tin cup, wash basin, food plan, mirror, combs, cleaning brushes, towel, razor, and shaving equipment would have been issued for Williams's use. At some point he would learned the rules and customs of the prison. There was to be no communication with other inmates, no personal visitors, no outgoing or incoming mail or news of any sort, no liquor, and no tobacco. "[W]holesome food of a course [sic] quality, sufficient for the healthful support of life" would be delivered through the feeding drawer installed in the cell wall. Williams would be expected to labor in his cell, and prison records note that he learned to make shoes, as many as ten pairs a day by 1831. His fellow prisoners, male and female, might take up shoe-making, woodworking, weaving, spinning, lockmaking, blacksmithing, carriage-making, tailoring, or wool-packing. He would also be expected to reflect on his crime and seek forgiveness. Bad behavior would be punished by the denial of time in the exercise yard, the withholding of food, confinement in dark cells, or the implementation of various restraining devices employed by the guards and overseers.

According to the daily schedule, Williams would rise at daybreak and retire around 9 or 10 p.m. With socks over their shoes, guards pushing food carts with wheels covered with leather (all to muffle sound) would deliver breakfast at 7 a.m., dinner at noon, and supper at 6 p.m. Every day but Sunday, Williams would be allotted one hour to spend in the exercise yard attached to his cell, but prisoners in adjacent cells would not be let out at the same time. Three times a day he would receive a visit from an overseer, once a day from the warden, and twice a week from the resident physician. Prison Inspectors, members of the local Prison Society's Acting Committee, designated state officials, and visiting dignitaries also might pay a call. The occasional religious service was performed by a volunteer member of the clergy who stood at the head of a corridor and spoke loudly.

Such was the ideal (and idealistic) program of Eastern State Penitentiary upon its opening. Even this capsule view of its operation reveals particular approaches to surveillance, labor, architectural plan, living conditions, and treatment. Early Eastern State was a hybrid of Old World enlightenment philosophy and New World rationality, European precedents in penology and American innovations, the experience of Quakers persecuted in England and their emergence as a [important] voice in Pennsylvania. The institution's history retells the development and decline of the ideals of the Pennsylvania system.

Perhaps the most fundamental theory that contributed to the creation of Eastern State Penitentiary held that incarceration could serve as a form of punishment. Norman Johnston has argued that monasteries and ecclesiastical prisons had provided the models for the early innovative prisons at Ghent, Amsterdam, and San Michele. Church courts responsible for the population of monks, clerks, and serfs were forbidden to claim lives in retribution for crimes committed. Instead, offenders were subjected to seclusion or solitary confinement "not as punishment alone, but as a way of providing conditions under which penitence would most likely occur." In late medieval and early modern Europe, a number of monasteries were constructed with solitary cells, sometimes with attached gardens or workrooms. Contact with anyone but designated officials and superiors was prohibited.

In early modern Europe and colonial America, jails served to detain persons accused of crimes while they awaited trail or punishment. The actual punishment of crime was typically corporal in nature. By mutilating, flogging, branding, torturing, confining, banishing, or executing a criminal, civic officials felt they could make an example of bad behavior before a public audience and thus discourage citizens from breaking the law. In his work On Crimes and Punishments (1764), philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) put it plainly: "What is the political intent of punishments? To instill fear in other men." Crimes against society were punished by the society. Criminals were physically marked or entirely removed from the larger population, and citizens were involved in the project as spectators or even participants, inflicting jeers, garbage, or even blows on the convicts.

Taking a cue from the works of French political philosopher Montesquieu, Beccaria issued a watershed criticism of European penal practices. He eloquently condemned the death penalty and other corporal punishments by suggesting that they were themselves barbarous practices which only encouraged more crime. His other arguments concerned such issues as trial practices, convict labor, and classification of crimes and punishment. Although he did not outline an institutional structure for criminal punishment, Beccaria did make several general suggestions that provide the philosophical background for the creation of Eastern State. For example:

It is not the intensity of punishment that has the greatest effect on the human spirit, but its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and more permanently affected by slight but repeated impressions than by a powerful but momentary action ... .It is not the terrible yet momentary spectacle of the death of a wretch, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of liberty, who, having become a beast of burden, recompenses with his labors the society he has offended, which is the strongest curb against crimes.

Beccaria's work was published throughout Europe and highly regarded by such prominent Enlightenment thinkers and leaders as Jeremy Bentham, John Adams, Voltaire, and Catherine the Great.

An English contemporary of Beccaria's, John Howard (1726-1790) made a more practical contribution to penal reform by making a survey of European prison conditions. This English reformer compiled the details of diet, architecture, living conditions, personnel, health, labor, and other issues into a series entitled State of the Prisons (published in four editions between 1777 and 1792). Howard singled out three continental institutions as the most innovative. The juvenile House of Correction of San Michele in Rome featured three floors of thirty cells, each furnished with a mattress, latrine, window, and door with peephole. In Amsterdam, the Rasp-house (for men) and Spin-house (for women) had opened in 1596 for the enforced employment of beggars and young malefactors. Michel Foucault has pointed out that the Dutch workhouses were especially significant for linking the "the theory, so characteristic of the 16th century, of a pedagogical and spiritual transformation of individuals brought about by continuous exercise and the penitentiary techniques conceived in the second half of the 18th century."

In Belgium, the House of Corrections at Ghent was remarkable for its octagonal design and its combined practices of isolating prisoners at night, separating the prisoners by sex, age, crimes committed, and sentence. Like Eastern State Penitentiary, the cells at Ghent were arranged in cellblocks radiating from a central location. Prison historian Norman Johnston suggested that "Architecturally Ghent can be regarded as the first large-scale penal institutions in which a conscious attempt was made to bring architecture to the aid of the treatment philosophy." Considering the successes of these model institutions and the problems of a great number of inadequate prisons he witnessed, Howard concluded that "the first thing to be taken into consideration is the prison itself' (his emphasis). Proper institutional design and regulations could make an inmate's stay in prison more effective and more humane.

By the 1780's, British architects were learning from continental examples and developing their own innovative designs for prisons and workhouses. In some cases, this extended to paired sleeping and working cells (Gloucester) or paired cells and exercise yards (Reading). Alternatively, English reformers and architects considered the larger plan as a vehicle for experimentation with issues of containment, punishment, labor, and surveillance. Following his 1787 visit to the construction site of a circular textile mill in Russia, social philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) devised his Panopticon prison: a glazed, cylindrical, multi-story building lined with barred cells facing a central guard tower. Thus, a single guard stationed at the center could observe and control a large number of inmates. As Bentham himself declared, a well-designed building could serve as a machine whose work was to better the human condition: "Morals reformed--health preserved--industry invigorated-instruction diffused--public burdens lightened--Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock .... all by a simple idea in architecture!" While Bentham never saw one of his own designs realized, other European architects drew from his work to construct their own circular, semi-circular, and octagonal panoptical prisons.

The radial plan developed as an alternative to Bentham's Panopticon. Cross-shaped plans had long been in use for churches, schools, hospitals, asylums, and other institutions which relied on the ability of architecture to create an ordered or hierarchical set of spaces. An ally of Howard's, architect of William Blackburn (d. 1790) designed eighteen British jails and prisons. These included his cruciform County Jail at Ipswich, the Suffolk House of Corrections with its central tower largely detached from radial wings, and the jail and penitentiary Kent with its four clusters of cellblocks radiating from central hubs. Perhaps Blackburn's work and the more innovative prisons on the European continent served as examples to John Haviland when he set out to design Eastern State.

While experimentation with prison design began to emerge in the mother country, the importation of the severe British criminal code discouraged the British colonies from innovation in their penal matters. Known as the Duke of York's Laws, the British code of 1676 outlined twelve crimes subject to the death penalty and another list of crimes whose penalty was corporal punishment. When Quaker William Penn incorporated Pennsylvania as a province in 1681, this code was already in place; however, within a year, the province's own "Great Law" superseded the older code. These sweeping laws formalized such Quaker values as human perfectibility, tolerance, and liberality in government. Most significant here were the limitation of capital punishment to those convicted of murder and the corresponding increase in sentences to hard labor in a "house of correction." Penologist Harry Barnes claims that apart from a contemporary measure in West Jersey, this "unquestionably marks the first instance in the history of criminal jurisprudence in which imprisonment at hard labor was prescribed for a majority of the acts which were branded as crimes by the community."

Traditionally, workhouses were intended for the employment of vagrants and the poor, and jails served as holding facilities for accused persons awaiting trial or convicts awaiting the performance of their sentences. On the other hand, the "Great Laws" specifically decreed that "All prisons shall be workhouses for felons, thief, vagrants .... county." A March 1683 supplement further provided that each county erect "a sufficient house, at least twenty feet square, for restraint, correction, labour and punishment of all such persons as shall be thereunto committed by law." Thus the Pennsylvania laws called for the creation of a new penal institution--or at least a fusion of the distinct functions of the jail and the workhouse. By combining workhouse and jail in one institution, the colonists effectively made prison sentences serve as punishments but also made poverty and vagrancy a crime.

The "Great Laws" were in turn superseded by an act of 31 May 1718 which reinstated the British criminal code in an even more drastic form than that outlined by the Duke of York's Laws. The new code required the death penalty for thirteen different crimes, and subsequent colonial laws increased that figure to fourteen with the punishment of counterfeiting by death. With the emphasis on corporal and capital punishment, the drive to erect workhouses abated, and Pennsylvania's penal institutions came to resemble the holding jails of the Old World. Barnes suggests that only in the Quaker strongholds of Philadelphia and Chester County did the fused workhouse/jail survive well into the 18th century. In Philadelphia, the High Street jail was constructed soon after the passage of the 1718 law. It featured on the same lot a building for criminals and a building for debtors, vagrants, and the poor. When this facility became outmoded, a 1773 law provided for a "new gaol, workhouse, and house of corrections in the city of Philadelphia. "

Contemporary with the construction of the new jail was the Society of Friends' organization of the world's first prisoners' aid society on 7 February 1776. The Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners focused their efforts on calling attention to the conditions in the High Street jail and aiding prisoners there. Although this organization disbanded when the British seized Philadelphia in 1777, the reform movement reemerged after the war. A group of Philadelphian political players gathered to reform the English criminal code still in place in 1786. They turned to the ideas of Bentham and Beccaria, Montesquieu and Blackstone, as well as to Quaker thinkers. Led by Benjamin Franklin, Caleb Lownes, William Bradford, and Benjamin Rush, this group succeeded in getting a 1786 law passed which substituted hard labor for the death penalty in three of the lesser felonies. Historian Finn Hornum suggests that these Pennsylvanians once again attempted to reorient punishment away from the colonial idea of retribution and towards an enlightened theory of reformation and rehabilitation.

On 8 May 1787, a group of citizens convened for the first meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Their act of incorporation and constitution stated that "the objectives of the Society shall be confined to the alleviation of the miseries of public prisons, the improvement of prison discipline, and the relief of discharged prisoners." While many of their early efforts echoed those of the previous Society, the new organization immediately gained a high public profile. Their recognition was owed in part to the distinguished and nonsectarian composition of its membership (such as Lownes, Rush, Thomas Wistar, and Bishop William White) and to the particular moment into which it was born. These were the formative years of the young republic and the pinnacle of Philadelphia's prominence as America's financial, cultural, and philanthropic center.

By publishing a series of public "Memorials"--or missives to the state government--the Prison Society established an authoritative voice of support for prisoners' rights. The first Memorials called attention to existing problems, their main target being the Walnut Street Jail located opposite the State House yard. Despite its trim Georgian appearance designed by prominent architect Robert Smith, the jail embodied many of the problems of Old World jails. During the early years, male and female, young and old, debtor and convict prisoners alike were thrown together in large rooms. Guards extracted service and supply fees from the inmates and operated taverns within the prison walls, literally charging prisoners their shirts--and their pants--for a drink. Diets were poor, heating and ventilation inadequate, and punishments cruel. Moreover, the labor program was all but nonexistent making the institution no more than a free-for-all detention space. The Prison Society's third Memorial entreated the State Assembly to "adopt such measures, as justice, humanity, and sound policy dictate, and .... rescue the prisons of Pennsylvania from the just reproach that they tend to confirm depravity, instead of promoting the interests of honesty and virtue."

The Prison Society launched a critical dialogue with the state government. First of all, the Prison Society helped to establish prison reform as an important state issue. A 1789 law announced that Walnut Street Jail would receive the more serious offenders convicted anywhere in Pennsylvania. Support for the jail would be provided in part by the counties whose prisoners had been transferred to Philadelphia. Secondly, the Prison Society emerged as an influential author of state policy regarding prisons. The Society's efforts were rewarded on 5 April 1790 with the passage of a law calling for imprisonment at hard labor to punish crime, separating witness and debtors from convicts, and segregating offenders by sex.

Clearly, the Prison Society was reading its John Howard. In his history of the Prison Society, Negley K. Teeters, writes that the society had purchased a copy of Howard's State of the Prisons. Like Howard, the Prison Society was concerned with issues of design, health, living conditions, security, and deterrence of crime; however, they placed particular emphasis on the Quaker ideal of individual reform through solitary confinement, hard labor, religious instruction, and visits with officials and clergy. The Prison Society also promoted the informed administration of prisons. At their behest, the 1790 law also called for the appointment of two aldermen and twelve citizens as Inspectors of the Walnut Street Jail. That year, the Mayor approved a slate of twelve prominent Philadelphians--the majority of them members of the Society--as Inspectors.

The most ground-breaking portion of the law arranged for the construction of a small cellblock at Walnut Street for the solitary confinement of the "more hardened and atrocious offenders .... who have been sentenced to hard labour for a term of years in the hope that the addition of unremitted solitude to laborious employment, as far as it can be effected, will contribute as much to reform as to deter." Norman Johnston comments that this new brick "penitentiary house" neatly demonstrated John Howard's influence on the Prison Society. Cells appeared on either side of a two-story cellblock with a central corridor bisected laterally by a partition wall. This latter device, prevalent in many contemporary British jails, served to deter communication between prisoners on opposite sides of the corridor. The 6' x 8' cells had vaulted brick ceilings 9' high, a pair of doors (one iron, one wood), and a barred and louvered window opening. They were furnished with water taps and privy pipes, and stoves in the corridors provided heat. Constantly confined in the cell without any opportunity for labor, the prisoner had no human contact but with the guard or turnkey who visited once a day.

Reports on the Walnut Street Jail during the 1790's were generally favorable. For example, the Due de la Rouchefoucauld-Liancourt endorsed the "highminded" inspectors, the "varied and profitable" labor system, the "good" discipline, and the sound elementary and religious education provided. The number of convictions in Philadelphia did drop from 131 in 1789 to forty-five in 1793, and there were no escapes from Walnut Street during those four years. In the meantime, the Prison Society effected additional reforms such as abolishing the death penalty for all crimes but first degree murder and awarding the keeper a (state) salary in order to prohibit him from levying fees on inmates. A debtors' wing was established on Prune (now Locust) Street in 1785, and the Arch Street Prison, a workhouse for vagrants, was erected in 1817.

By the 1800's, the optimism characteristic of the Inspectors' previous accounts had begun to wane. Overcrowding became an issue as the inmate population swelled from 106 in 1800 to 206 in 1809 to 304 in 1811 to a high of 473 in 1820. In a report of 8 January 1821, the Visiting Committee (Inspectors) suggested that immigration from Europe, migration of African-Americans from neighboring slave states, and the difficult financial climate of the early 1800's had contributed to the overcrowded conditions, which had in turn overwhelmed any efforts to classify and segregate prisoners:

The Visiting Committee will Sum up this report by saying that the great Penitentiary System of Pennsylvania is not in operation. That instead of employment, most are Idle. Instead of Classification, those for all kinds of offenses associate together, and instead of Solitary Confinement, from 20 to 35, and sometimes as many as 40, are lodged in rooms of 18 feet square. And the Com. can see little but ruin to the morals of the inmates of the prison and danger to the Safety of the community. They would therefore recommend that prompt and efficient measures be immediately taken to prevail in the Legislature to erect a new Prison where the Penitentiary System may be carried into effect, for we are of the opinion that there is as great cause for the Society to endeavor to reform the present System as there was 30 years ago.

A commitment to the penitentiary program was maintained, but it would require the creation of a new institutional structure and a new physical structure.

Persistent lobbying by the Prison Society and the administration of the Walnut Street Jail culminated in state legislation providing for the construction of a state penitentiary to serve the western half of Pennsylvania. The law of 3 March 1818 appropriated $60,000 to erect a prison organized according to the principle of solitary confinement. Within the year, Pittsburgh's Western State Penitentiary began construction according to an octagonal, panopticon plan by William Strickland. The 1818 law also authorized Inspectors of the Walnut Street Jail to transfer inmates to the Arch Street Prison and then, with the consent of the proper authorities, to purchase land for the construction of a penitentiary for the eastern half of the state. On 20 March 1821, the state provided funds for the new Eastern State Penitentiary and appointed twelve men (mostly members of the Prison Society) to a Building Commission charged with organizing the erection of the new institution.

With $100,000 to spend and their choice of four competition entries and twenty-three different construction sites, the Building Commissioners of the new prison had the opportunity to carry out a large-scale penal experiment. They considered how "Good design" itself could foster "a disposition to virtuous conduct" or alternatively "impress so great a dread and terror" as to discourage would-be offenders. Their debates concerned cost, ventilation, inmate health, containment, surveillance, seclusion, deterrence, labor, and security--issues which came to be expressed in Commission decisions on location, plan, arrangement of buildings, architectural style, and building materials. Despite the belabored approval of the plans of Englishman John Haviland and the attending conflicts on hiring a supervising architect, the first phase of construction at Eastern State got underway in 1822.

Perhaps the Building Commissioners had agreed on Haviland's design because they perceived its flexibility in accommodating any of the various penological systems being considered. As Building Commissioner Roberts Vaux suggested, "at the penitentiary in progress near Philadelphia .... each cell is to have a yard, where, or in the cell itself, which is also sufficiently commodious, labour may be performed, if it shall be so ordered." Even as the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary rose on Cherry Hill, state legislators, Prison Society members, and Building Commissioners continued to study prison systems currently in operation. Supporters of solitary confinement without labor argued that this system provided the most severe punishment and thus produced the most effective and most rapid criminal reform; yet, Pennsylvanians soon learned of the problems developing at the newly-opened Western Penitentiary where this system was employed. The 9' long x 7' wide cells afforded too little space for inmate labor, and the building's lack of sound-proofing allowed prisoners to communicate with each other through metal grates. Within a year of Western State Penitentiary's 1827 opening, its board of managers acknowledged that the system was endangering inmates' physical and mental health.

New York's Auburn State Prison provided an intriguing alternative. Built in 1817, Auburn had in fact imitated the Walnut Street Jail's penitentiary house and briefly experimented with solitary confinement. They New York prison abandoned the program in 1822 due to the marked increase in disease, suicide, and mental illness among inmates. Auburn soon developed its own penological system known as the silent system or Auburn system defined by solitary confinement and hard labor. Inmates were secluded in individual cells at night, but allowed to work together during the day. The imposition of complete silence and the threat of violent punishment ensured inmate discipline and resulted in high levels of production in the prison workshops.

By April 1829, the state legislature had rejected Western State's laborless system and rejected the popular Auburn system, which had been adopted by many other states. A state act ordered the implementation of separate or solitary confinement at labour at both state penitentiaries. This program, which came to be known as the Pennsylvania system, promised to maintain constant isolation, provide the opportunity for a prisoner to reflect and repent, generate money from the prisoners' work, and produce skilled laborers prepared to reenter society and earn an honest living. The silent system, however, persisted as the chief rival of the separate system.

On 1 July 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary's Building Inspectors officially "delivered up" the buildings to the Board of Inspectors to prepare for incoming prisoners. Prison Society member, former Inspector of the Walnut Street Jail, and devout Quaker Samuel R. Wood had been appointed warden in June. He set about hiring his staff of "under keepers, who shall be called overseer, and all necessary servants." By 1834, the staff would include a warden, underkeeper, watchman, laborer, principal overseer and five overseers, butcher, blacksmiths, dyer, bricklayer, carriage maker, two drivers, and a gatekeeper. When Eastern received first prisoner Charles Williams three months later, the great experiment commenced. During the first seven years of operation, Eastern's infrastructure was not yet in place. Four of the seven cellblocks (for a total of 354 habitable cells) were constructed during this period, and numerous improvements were made to Cellblocks 1-3.

Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the many social institutions erected in and around Philadelphia during the 1820s and 1930s. Kenneth Finkel has argued that rapidly expanding Philadelphia was inventing itself as the country's largest, most economically secure, most socially responsible, and most culturally exciting city. A flurry of philanthropic building activity produced the Orphan Asylum, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the House of Refuge, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, the Alms House, the U.S. Naval Asylum, and Moyamensing (City) Prison. Not too far from but not too near to the city's core, the Spring Garden District witnessed the construction of the Small Pox Hospital (1818), House of Refuge (1826), Girard College for Orphans (1832-48), and Eastern State Penitentiary. While each of these various institutions was intended to serve a very distinct group, their architecture performed the very public function of reminding citizens of their preferred situation outside the walls. So John Haviland could write of Eastern State: "The plan and facade is perfectly original, its expression and material impart a grave, severe, and awful character--and the impression it produces on the imagination of the spectator is peculiarly impressive, solemn, and instructive."

The institution's immense construction costs--at $772,600.69 the most expensive building yet constructed in the U.S.--its ground-breaking design, its peculiar penological program, and the idealistic expectations of its proponents created much public interest. Various portrayals of Eastern's inner workings--as seen through plans and drawings, statistical tables, and essays--express two important themes. A recurrent theme in several contemporary histories of Eastern State (and in histories of American prisons in general) holds that the good intentions of the administration met with bad results. Closely linked to this theme is the idea that visitors confronted with Eastern failed to be indifferent about what they saw--an sentiment that restates itself today among tourists who venture inside the walls.

Arguably the best publicity for Eastern derived from the widespread publication of its principal elevation and of its plan. In the 1820s, the relatively remote Spring Garden District did not have a substantial population to impress with the imposing walls of the state prison. A popular monthly magazine, Atkinson's Casket, printed a view of Eastern State yet under construction in 1827. Published works intended to promote Philadelphia sometimes presented information on Eastern and even presented bird's eye views of the site in their galleries of other local landmarks like Christ Church, Laurel Hill Cemetery, and the State House.

Notable in the Philadelphia tourist guides that mention the penitentiary are references to the public distribution of visiting tickets. Among Eastern's early visitors were family groups like "the six Brodheads" of Pike County, Native American delegates like "Chief Bl. Hawk and his company," married couples like the Nelsons of Booneville (Missouri), and "76 members of the United Fire Co. of Baltimore." It is not clear to which locations visitors had access. Given the rule forbidding inmates to receive personal visitors, it is curious that the site would have attracted as many as the 10,000 visitors reported in 1858.

Most of the published accounts record the impressions of the visiting experts, international officials, and notable authors who no doubt had freer access to the site. Charged with documenting the details of the Pennsylvania system for the interest of their home countries, foreign visitors typically considered Eastern State in comparison with other American prisons like Auburn and Sing Sing in New York. In their 1833 report to the French government, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that the expensive but noteworthy Pennsylvania system was too impractical for adoption in France. A few years later, the French sent judge Frederic-Auguste Demetz and architect Guillaume-Abel Blouet to prepare meticulous architectural drawings and statistical tables, which endorsed Eastern's program.

The Secretary of a London prison society, William Crawford made a thorough presentation of Eastern State's operations and published an idealized first floor plan in 1833-34; his research resulted in the construction of England's radial Pentonville Prison and the implementation of the solitary system there. In addition to those from Britain and France, dignitaries from Sweden, Belgium, Prussia, Brazil, Peru, Antigua, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Canada visited Eastern State. Their accounts put Haviland's radial plan (real or ideal) and the Pennsylvania system at the center of international debates about prisons. Prominent American visitors included Reverend Louis Dwight of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, architect and agent Gershom Powers of Auburn Prison, educator Horace Mann, several state governors, architect Thomas U. Walter, financier Nicholas Biddle, Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and repeatedly, John Haviland himself.

Perhaps Eastern's most famous critic was English author Charles Dickens, who was reputed to say, "The Falls of Niagara and your Penitentiary are two objects I might almost say I most wish to see in America." Dickens supposedly spent only two hours at Eastern State in March 1842, but his stay made enough of an impression that he penned almost an entire chapter of his American Notes (1845) on the subject. The author praised the humanitarian intentions of the system but feared that its creators and administrators "do not know what it is they are doing." His melodramatic portrayals of specific inmates aside, Dickens thoughtfully captured some of the details of prison life, in particular its sounds (or lack thereof):

Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails is awful. Occasionally there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound ....
There is no sound, but other prisoners may be near for all that. He [a typical inmate] remembers to have heard once, when he little thought of coming here himself, that the cells were so constructed that the prisoners could not hear each other, though the officers could hear them. Where is the nearest man--upon the right, or on the left? or is there one in both directions? Where is he sitting now--with his face to the light? or is he walking to and fro? How is he dressed? Has he been here long? Is he much worn away? Is he very white and spectre-like? Does he think of his neighbour too?

The popular author's harsh depiction of Eastern State stunned the proponents of the Pennsylvania System who had been pleased with the English author's apparently cordial visit. German-born political economist Francis Lieber wrote a rebuttal for the local newspapers, and American reformer Dorothea Dix published a glowing report on Eastern State in her Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline (1845). Condemnations of Dickens' critique occasionally resurfaced in The Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy over the next fifty years.

Eastern State Penitentiary did indeed develop operational problems almost immediately after its opening. In 1834, an enormous scandal erupted that called into question Eastern's mission to produce through solitary confinement a moral and benevolent environment in which individual prisoners could rehabilitate themselves. That year, a state legislative committee organized hearings regarding accusations of "[p]ractice and manners among the officers, agents and females, licentious and immoral"; the embezzlement of prison funds and misappropriation of public property, "cruel and unusual punishment" of prisoners; "subversive" activities such as parties, intoxication, "carousing and dancing," and "habitual intercourse with lewd and depraved persons"; and "illegal practice in the treatment of convicts" such as using them as house servants. The testimony provided largely confirmed these accusations, thus implicating much of the prison administrative structure from Warden Wood and the Board of Inspectors down to a clerk, overseer, and his wife. Nonetheless, the majority of the committee dismissed the case by issuing a few minor recommendations.

With the scandal of 1834, the incarceration of the few female prisoners (always less than 3% of the total inmate population) at Cherry Hill became a serious issue. At first they were housed in a room in one of the Administration Building's towers; then they were moved to the gallery of Cellblock 7 and in 1852 to one of the one-story cellblocks. In 1836, Warden Wood hired Mrs. Harriet B. Hall as a matron to supervise the women convicts. Also of concern were the flaws in the architectural program regarding heating, ventilation, plumbing, and communication between inmates. To this end, the resident physician emerged as a key player in the making of institutional decisions. His monthly reports to the Board on the inmates' mental and physical health provided the impetus behind critical improvements to buildings systems and behind larger questions of the efficacy of solitary confinement.

Labor issues presented few problems. Eastern State had adopted a combination of the "public account" plan and the "piece-price" system in which prison authorities purchased materials from and sold finished products back to contractors. In the developing industrial climate, there was still a market for handicraft manufactures that could be produced in the cells. Shoe-making and weaving were the most popular industries at the penitentiary through the 1860s.

As administrators attempted to reckon with operational issues, the rivalry between Auburn's silent system and Pennsylvania's solitary system intensified. The Auburn System emerged during this period as the favored model for new prisons and renovated penitentiaries throughout the country. All four of the other state prisons (RI, MD, NJ, VA) which had adopted the Pennsylvania system abandoned it by 1858. Even the administration of Eastern State cast off the term "solitary" and adopted the "separate method of coefinement with labor and moral instruction" as the formal definition of the Pennsylvania system. As Negley Teeters and John Shearer have pointed out, this new terminology attempted to cast off the former term's negative connotations with silence and solitude, and it instead emphasized that inmates were encouraged to converse with and seek guidance from prison officials and approved visitors.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, freed slaves began to migrate north, many Americans from rural areas headed for the cities, and the nation struggled to rebuild it's war-torn economy. The influx of unemployed (and often unskilled) individuals resulted in a sharp jump in the inmate population at Eastern State. With 569 inmates and only 540 cells, the Inspectors approved the doubling-up of prisoners in a single cell. In the 38th Annual Report (discussing the year 1866), the Inspectors suggested that as a temporary necessity, "pairs of convicts of such a low grade of mental capacity as to render them unfit for any punishment but restraint were to be housed commonly." Teeters and Shearer suggest that 1866 marks "the beginning of the end of the Pennsylvania System in the prison of its birth." Not until 1964 did the number of available cells at the penitentiary overtake the number of prisoners. Again, the Inspectors coined a new term to describe the program in place. By 1872, they settled upon the "individual treatment system" according to which inmates at Eastern were to be treated separately though sometimes housed communally.

Eastern embarked on an extended building campaign in the late 19th century. Filling out the original Haviland plan, overseer Michael J. Cassidy supervised the construction of plans for the extension of Cellblocks 1 and 3 by twenty cells each and the construction of Cellblocks 8-11. The motives of the Inspectors and Cassidy, who was appointed warden in 1881, are unclear. On the one hand, the construction of additional cellblocks represents a direct attempt to solve the linked problems of overcrowding and the pairing of inmates in a single cell. In his reports to the Inspectors and in his public addresses at national prison organization meetings, warden Cassidy maintained that he would "object to more than one in a cell under most every condition." On the other hand, the cells he constructed offered almost 50% more square footage than the Haviland cells--as if in direct anticipation of pairing and even tripling inmates in a single cell. Indeed by 1884, Cassidy confessed that "We have sometimes three prisoners in a cell."

Although inmate privacy declined during this period, some inmate services and living conditions did improve. The standard daily diet instituted in 1829 was made more varied and nutritious. Particularly industrious inmates could supplement their meals by tending vegetable gardens and even fruit trees in their exercise yards. Prisoners were permitted to engage in hobbies and even adopt pets, such as butterflies, cats, birds, or rabbits. They also could personalize their cells with painted murals and decorations. Policies regarding visitors and mail were relaxed such that the warden could report on the occurrence of 1,000 visits by inmates' relatives and friends as well as the approved (censored) exchange of 6,700 incoming and 5,000 outgoing letters in 1872.

The position of teacher was created in 1854, and his duties included maintaining the prison library and offering instruction in bookkeeping, phonography and mathematics as well as German and Spanish. Substantial contributions from several publishing companies greatly expanded the holdings of the prison library. By the 1860s, a printed catalogue of library holdings offered prisoners their pick of magazines, religious works, inspirational fiction, and other literature. The library was housed on the second floor of the Observatory. While the prison chaplain provided the hundreds of prisoners with individual "moral instruction" at best once a month, there were services and hymn-singing every Sunday. In his summary of operations at Eastern State, Amos Mylin reported that "Eight services are conducted in the blocks at the same time, and the prisoners have hymn books, many of them join in the singing and all apparently enjoy the exercises."

Prison physicians lobbied for a more healthy prison environment and for better health facilities. In the mid-1880's, a gymnasium was created in Cellblock 3. In 1886, physician William Robinson explained that "The convicts are masked and taken to the room in classes of six each, and given a course of exercise lasting thirty minutes." Various other improvements were made to the infirmary facilities as well. Still, the poor mental and physical health of many inmates represented an immense liability to the prison's reputation. The persistence of the ironically-named "solitary vice" since the prison's opening was a particular embarrassment to it's administrators: masturbation was thought to be the chief cause of mental and physical disease among inmates. The administration also struggled to defend itself against reports that the punitive confinement in the "dark cells" (or "Klondike" areas) led to tuberculosis and that mortality rates at Eastern were higher than those at congregate prisons. Reviewing Eastern's late-19th century position on health matters, Norman Johnston concluded that "In short, infirmities of all kinds among prisoners were ascribed to their having entered the prison in poor health or bearing inherited tendencies toward specific diseases."

Additional scandals hastened the decline of the Pennsylvania System. In 1897, another state legislative committee investigated charges implicating much of the administrative structure. Specific charges included the filthy condition of the cells, the low quality of inmate diet, the brutal and indifferent treatment of convicts (particularly the mentally ill) the misrepresentation of prison affairs in the Annual Repons, and the intimidation of convicts testifying before the committee. Despite the scathing testimony of a prominent judge and a series of abused prisoners, the legislative committee dismissed the case with an endorsement of Eastern State's management. The Board of Public Charities' 1903 investigation uncovered such problems as misuses of prison funds and materials, distribution of special food and privileges to favored inmates, and the use of inmates as personal servants for the warden and chief overseer.

Meanwhile, the old penitentiary was no longer the tourist mecca it had once been. The Fairmount and Francisville neighborhoods had grown up outside the prison walls, and Eastern State Penitentiary became one of the many established institutions--philanthropic foundations, schools, churches, stores-for local residents. Nonetheless, the legend of Eastern State did persist in the American literary imagination. While preparing his novel about Philadelphian tycoon Charles T. Yerkes, author Theodore Dreiser probably visited Eastern State to research prison operations. The Financier (1912) thoughtfully captured the mundane details of prison procedures, politics of favoritism, and the feeling of solitary confinement.

Henry James described his visit to the "ancient grimness" of Eastern State in his travelogue of impressions upon returning to his native country after decades of living in Europe. Published in 1907, The American Scene expressed the prison's peculiar relationship with the Philadelphia elite:

Of such substance was the story of these battlements; yet it was unmistakable that when one had crossed the drawbridge and passed under the portcullis the air seemed thick enough with the breath of the generations. A prison has, at the worst, the massive majesty, the sinister peace of a prison; but this huge house of sorrow affected me as, uncannily, of the City itself, the City of all the cynicisms and impunities against which my friends had, from far back, kept plating, as with the old silver of their sideboards, the armour of their social consciousnesses. It made the whole place, with some of its oddly antique aspects and its oddly modem freedoms, look doubly cut off from the world of light and ease .... Parts of the place suggested a sunny Club at a languid hour, with members vaguely lounging and chatting, with open doors and comparatively cheerful vistas, and plenty of rocking-chairs and magazine. The only thing was that, under this analogy, one found one's self speculating much on the implied requisites for membership .... One would have taken them to consist, without exception, of full-blown basenesses; one couldn't, from member to member, from type to type, from one pair of eyes to another, take them for anything else.

After reflecting on his experience at Eastern State, James sided with Dickens's "passionate protest" of sixty years past.

The administration's most critical problems derived from its stubborn devotion to the Pennsylvania system at the expense of other developments in penology. The State of Pennsylvania had made a modest attempt to centralize the administration of its reformatory and penal institutions in 1869, when it passed an act establishing the Board of Public Charities. This entity paid annual visits to the various institutions, had general overview of their budgets, issued annual reports to the state legislature, and suggested policy changes; however, notes Finn Hornum, "the Board had no real control over the daily administration of the institution"--even in 1874 when the Governor was invested with the power to appoint its members. For the last two decades of the century, the strong personalities of Warden Cassidy (appointed warden 1881) and President of the Board of lnspectors Richard Vaux (a former city mayor and the son of Building Commissioner Roberts Vaux) helped to sustain the Pennsylvania system.

In other prisons across the country, new theories and techniques began to gain acceptance. In 1853, Irish prison reformer Walter Crofton developed the "Irish system," which combined the concepts of graded classification, commutation, indeterminate sentencing, and parole. Each prisoner was classified in a graded group; good behavior allowed him or her to progress through the series of grades, reduce his or her sentence, and leave prison on parole. Closely linked to the Irish System was the development of the American reformatory. In 1877, superintendent Zebulon Brockway introduced the Irish system at New York state's newly-opened Elmira Reformatory for young offenders. This experiment was widely hailed at various American prison conferences, and some of the more progressive institutions began to adopt similar programs, including Pennsylvania's own Huntingdon Reformatory (opened 1889). Despite the similar rehabilitative ideals shared by the penitentiary and reformatory systems, Eastern State Penitentiary's maverick Warden Cassidy stridently denounced the "prevailing epidemic of indeterminate sentence and parole" at the 1887 meeting of the National Prison Association.

More than any other issue, with the possible exception of overcrowding, labor caused a reluctant Eastern State to relinquish the Pennsylvania system. By the last quarter of the 19th century, a number of factors were threatening Eastern's handicraft contract labor system. First of all, rapid industrial expansion in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania had decreased the demand for hand manufactures. In attempting to safeguard their jobs in the wake of machine industry, free laborers perceived cheap prison labor as a threat to their livelihoods. On 13 June 1883, Pennsylvania prohibited private contract labor at all state and county penal institutions and introduced a state-use system which made the state the sole contractor. A week later, the state passed an act requiring all goods produced in penal institutions to bear the words "convict made," the year of manufacture, and the name of the institution. In 1891, the state implemented the eight-hour day for its convicts.

The most devastating state legislation regarding convict labor was the Muehlbronner Act of 1897. While its decree against the use of power machinery in prisons did not affect Eastern, this act seriously restricted the number of prisoners employed in handicraft manufactures. Only 20% (raised to 35% in 1899) of the convict population could be employed at any time. Skilled trades like shoemaking, which had to compete with factory-made products, were replaced with tasks like matweaving and brush-making. Eastern State administrators managed to keep other inmates busy with on-site construction and maintenance projects as well as in repair and hobby shops.

Also faced with restrictive legislation regarding prison industry in New York state, Zebulon Brockway devised a new system of "vocational training" for his inmates at Elmira. He argued that inmates taught industrial skills in prison would become better-adjusted and valued contributors to free society. As expected, Cassidy and Vaux's opinions on the subject of free labor and vocational industrial training were entirely negative. He supported only the "honest industry" of hand labor and complained of the "labor unions .... transplanted from the old country to this [which] have well-nigh ruined the industries of America." Richard Vaux condemned reformatories as only a slight improvement on the congregate system, "itself a crime against common sense and public safety."

Almost immediately after the deaths of Vaux in 1895 and Cassidy in 1900, many of the reforms and new ideas developed over the past half-century began to be implemented at Eastern. In regard to governance and administration issues, Pennsylvania passed a commutation law in 1901. In regard to labor and site use issues, Eastern embarked on a massive campaign of construction and building systems to update the infrastructure. In 1904, warden Joseph Byers sternly stated:

The administration of the Eastern Penitentiary on lines as originally laid down in the Laws of 1829, most of which are still in force, is out of the question. Taking no account of the marked advance in Penal Legislation in the past thirty years, and of changes in industrial and social conditions, and looking only at the physical side of the question, the enforcement of the "separate and solitary system" demanded by existing Laws is an absolute impossibility. Either the Laws should be changed to meet present conditions and to conform to the general accepted principles of prison reform, or the State should relieve its officials of the impossible situation of enforcing Laws that cannot be enforced.

Administratively, programmatically, philosophically, and physically, Eastern began to reinvent itself as a congregate prison.

Accommodation at last: the congregate system (1913-1970)

On 7 July 1913, Governor John K. Tener signed a bill establishing Eastern State Penitentiary as a congregate prison. The law actually authorized "the proper authorities of the Eastern State Penitentiary .... at their discretion, to have any or all of the persons confined in the said penitentiary congregated" for the purposes of "worship, labor, learning, and recreation." Jeffrey Cohen suggests that in fact, "The new law mandated less than it allowed and may simply have ratified some measures already in operation at Cherry Hill, but it soon translated into a wider range of congregate activities." Although it is not clear how many aspects of life at Eastern State Penitentiary were specifically transformed by the 1913 law, the dynamics of sanctioned congregate activity deserve consideration.

To start with the four activities specified by Governor Tener, communal religious activity was facilitated by renovation projects that created a general chapel above the laundry, a synagogue in Cellblock 7, and a Catholic Chapel in the former warden's office off Cellblock 1. The Morris and Vaux construction campaign had resulted in plenty of infrastructure for congregate labor. In 1927, criminologist Harry Elmer Barnes claimed that "In spite of .... verbal recognition of the reformative value of vocational education little or nothing was ever achieved in this direction in the Eastern Penitentiary until recently, when Warden McKenty made provision for correspondence courses in technical and vocational subjects." Given the average inmate population of 1,447 men during the 1920s and 1930s, facilities like the print shop, shoe shop, garage, and industrial buildings facilitated only limited vocational education. McKenty had more success in expanding general education offerings at the prison. By the end of 1917, 613 inmates were enrolled in prison school "from the beginning class for illiterates through the grammar school grades." By 1933, this figure had dropped to 108.

Lacking any formal diversionary facilities besides the library, Eastern developed new recreational programs. The 10,000 volume library moved to a covered exercise yard off Cellblock 2, and its former home on the second floor of the Observatory was converted into musical practice rooms. Several inmate musical groups, including a twenty-five-man string band, a forty-five-man brass band, and an 18-man orchestra, performed at Eastern, and their concerts were sometimes broadcast over the radio. Internationally renowned conductors John Philip Sousa and Leopold Stokowski each visited the penitentiary to conduct an inmate band. Also, it is told that during his time at Eastern State in 1929-30 mobster Al Capone purchased uniforms for the band. Movies were screened in the chapel above the laundry.

Sports were a favorite pastime at Eastern, and inmates had two hours of "yard-out" each day. Despite the presence of the power plant and the shop building, the yard between Cellblocks 3 and 4 served as a makeshift baseball and football field. The 1992 Eastern State Penitentiary oral history project features several former neighborhood residents who remember kids stationing themselves on Brown Street to catch the home run baseballs that flew over the prison walls. It took a strong arm to toss the ball back over the approximately 30' high wall. The heavy exchange of baseballs back and forth over the wall (4300 baseballs hit "out of the park" in 1933-34) either represented the popularity of the sport in Philadelphia and/or, as the administration suspected, a handy method of smuggling drugs into the prison. Other popular sports included quoits, handball, basketball, boxing, volleyball, and weight-lifting.

Of course, prisoners were already sharing living spaces well before 1913, and it seems that they continued to be fed in their cells until 1924 when the mess halls were constructed. Throughout Eastern's history, as at most prisons, diet was a key issue for the prisoners. The three meals served every day helped to structure a daily schedule, and the distribution of food provided the administration with a mechanism for punishment and reward. Since it's early days, severe disciplinary action typically entailed the withholding or curtailing of meals coupled with staff brutality and solitary confinement in one of the various "Klondike" punishment areas. In the 20th century, movie and television-watching privileges were similarly meted out.

The adoption of the congregate system also created security issues at Eastern. Perhaps the greatest success of both the Pennsylvania system and Haviland's plan was the near impossibility of inmate insurrection on a large scale. No doubt, the administration's fears of such activity formed a major obstacle to congregating the prison. Sweeping security measures taken in the 1920s and 1930s during the heyday of the "big house" era focused on fortifying administration areas and guard stations-nearly realizing the prison's external appearance as a fortress. The administration's fears were sometimes confirmed by various escape attempts, murders, and riots.

While dramatic riots did occur during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, it is the escape attempts that continue to incite intrigue. Escapes included an assortment of schemes, such as constructing a collapsible ladder, strolling out the main entrance, hiding in an outgoing supply truck, disguising oneself as a guard, or exiting via the sewer system. Eastern's most notorious outbreak occurred as a result of the eighteen-month long effort of inmate Clarence Klinedinst. From his cell at the end of Cellblock 7, he dug a tunnel that resurfaced outside the prison walls on Fairmount Avenue. On a Sunday in April 1945, he and twenty-one other men (including fabled bank robber Willie "That's where the money is" Sutton) broke out. All of the prisoners were caught within two months.

As suggested previously, the 20th century witnessed increased involvement in the affairs of Eastern State on the part of the state government. In 1921, an act was passed to create a Department of Public Welfare with supervisory responsibility for all state institutions that provided human services. Its Bureau of Restoration (later renamed Bureau of Correction) had direct administration of the penal and correctional institutions. Finn Hornum points out that while the warden and Board of Inspectors (later renamed Board of Trustees) continued to make decisions pertaining to the daily management of the prison, "much of their autonomy was now subject to the approval of the central office bureaucracy in Harrisburg." In 1923, female prisoners were transferred to the new State Industrial Home for Women in Muncy. In the late 1920s, Eastern Sate was designated the receiving facility for the eastern part of the state and became a maximum-security facility for repeat offenders and those less likely to reform. By the early 1930s prisoners could be transferred from Eastern to its new "farm branch" at Graterford (administered by the same warden and Board).

Contemporary with the events listed above were important changes concerning prison labor practices. The recommendations of a state-appointed penal labor commission resulted in a 1915 law that implemented the state-use system at Eastern State, set new wage standards (from ten to fifty cents a day), and overrode the earlier limitations on inmate labor in various industries. A new Prison Labor Commission managed production and oversaw distribution of the manufactured materials to all state institutions. Intense production was hindered by the complexities of state administration, by state agencies' reluctance to purchase prison manufactures, and by New Deal legislation prohibiting interstate commerce of such goods. In 1943, the midpoint of American involvement in the second World War, only about 200 inmates were idle. The other 1,100 were employed in state-use industries (printing, binding, weaving, tailoring, shoe-making); federal War Production work (such as the manufacture of tent pins, surgical splints, and gas raid sirens); maintenance work; and "made" work (such as woodworking and handicrafts in the prison hobby shops).

In the 1940s, state governments nationwide initiated the centralization of state administration of penal institutions. At the same time, rehabilitation and treatment programs emerged as a new approach to the handling of criminals. Pennsylvania lagged behind other states in implementing these new ideas until the creation of the Bureau of Correction in 1953, when Bureau Commissioner Arthur T. Prasse began to effect a general reorganization of the state's correctional institutions. In Philadelphia, this called for the Eastern Correctional Diagnostic and Classification Center (ECDCC) to operate Cell block 14 as a new prisoner intake and designation agency, and the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia (SCIPHA) to occupy the rest of the site as a maximum-security prison for 500 men.

In 1968, ECDCC and SCIPHA were reintegrated as one correctional treatment center, the Eastern State Correctional Institution. Administrators planned to emphasize therapy, casework, counseling, education, training in establishing a "new" facility on the grounds of the old penitentiary. In September 1969, however, Pennsylvania announced that it would close Eastern State Penitentiary and transfer all inmates to Graterford and other appropriate institutions. The 235 staff members were also given the opportunity to transfer to other state facilities. When the prison officially shut down in January 1970, forty-three prisoners remained on site to do maintenance work. The last members of this "skeleton staff" left in April.

Site Preservation

In 1970, the State of Pennsylvania leased the site to the City of Philadelphia. According to the agreement, the city was responsible for renovating the facility and paying off the state bonds for recent improvements. Serious rioting at Philadelphia's Holmesburg City Prison resulted in the transfer of inmates to Eastern State that July. Convicts and defendants awaiting trial were housed on site at the newly designated Center City Detention Center as a temporary measure. Significant physical evidence of their occupation within Cell blocks 6, 7, 8 and 9 has recently begun to be documented. The city continued to use the site for various purposes until and after its 1977 purchase from the state.

This sale captured the imagination of numerous interest groups. For some, Eastern State Penitentiary was an empty eleven-acre lot occupying valuable land in the thick of the crowded Fairmount and Francisville neighborhoods and just over a mile northwest of City Hall. For others, it was a little understood monument of potential world historic and architectural significance, and deserved further attention. For both interests, Eastern State was an extremely valuable site.

In 1974, Mayor Frank Rizzo prepared a plan to level the site and "to consolidate all of the City's Criminal Court facilities together with a holding complex for defendants into a major Justice Center on the site of Eastern State Penitentiary." That same year, the Philadelphia Planning Commission considered other hypothetical redevelopment schemes that would use the site for a penal museum, a youth hostel during the Bicentennial celebrations, a shopping complex, an industrial park, and a residential complex. In 1983, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority invited developers to submit proposals for the residential development of the site. Given the restrictive terms of the sale and the tremendous financial commitment necessary for a redevelopment project at Eastern, only one proposal was received, and summarily rejected. Three years later, the Redevelopment Authority reduced the preservation and use restrictions and reopened the invitation to interested developers. Following a review by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Redevelopment Authority rejected all four of the plans received. The three firms who resubmitted plans intended to develop the site as a shopping center and office park; their efforts to preserve any of the prison's structures or ambience were minimal.

Meanwhile, a group of Philadelphia citizens gathered to share their thoughts about the proposed development plans. They expressed their concerns about the impact of the development schemes on the neighborhood and their sense of the architectural and historical significance of the penitentiary. Composed of neighbors, architects, preservationists, academics, and cultural players, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force launched a grass roots letter-writing and media campaign to call for the rejection of the various development plans. In a letter to Fairmount area Councilman John Street, Task Force Chairman Kenneth Finkel stated: "We urge the Redevelopment Authority to support a proactive, future-minded broad-based study that would include an Historic Structures Report and address all of the concerns and interests of the citizens of the neighborhood, the city and the nation for this little-understood landmark.

As a result of the Task Force's efforts, Mayor Wilson Goode officially discouraged the Redevelopment Authority from proceeding with any of the three proposals. A new chapter began in the life of the old prison, the Task Force began to see to Eastern's immediate needs. They organized volunteers to help remove the thick vegetative growth that had engulfed the site since 1971. They considered various reuses of the 170 year old prison: antique mall, document storage, art storage, garden center, night club, gallery of inmate art, rehearsal space, neighborhood center, bakery, ceramic studio, and museum. They also applied for grants for historical research, conditions assessment, reuse planning, a museum exhibit, groundskeeping, and minor stabilization efforts.

Since the late 1980s, the Task Force has received both private grants and city support to fund an impressive array of projects at or about Eastern State. These include a historic structures report, conditions survey, reuse model and trial reuse study, protection and stabilization plan, site operation and marketing study, tour route feasibility study, detailed cell study, and Administration Building study; a series of four workshops exploring issues of criminology, historic preservation, prison architecture, and community planning; a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and catalog concerning the history of Eastern; an oral history project and video, a video documentary concerning the prison's history, and the transfer to video of a 1929 documentary set at the prison; the stabilization of the murals in the chapel and the repair of the chapel roof and skylight; and general maintenance and groundskeeping projects. And importantly, they also initiated free public tours of the site which continued on a limited basis through 1993.

In 1992, the Task Force reorganized as a committee of the Preservation Coalition of Philadelphia. A few years later, the Task Force developed an agreement with the Pennsylvania Prison Society (the current incarnation of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons) to pursue operation of the property as an historic site. By 1994, Eastern State Penitentiary was open for tours on a May to October calendar, attracting 31,000 visitors in 1994-95.

Several local institutions have established partnerships with Eastern State Penitentiary. Bryn Mawr College conducts an ongoing archaeological dig; Chestnut Hill College has established an internship program, and PHILACOR (a manufacturing and services agency of the Philadelphia prison system) perform maintenance work. Eastern has provided the setting for artistic projects in film, dance, theatre, and visual and conceptual art.