Sunday, June 22, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary, Part l

In the late 1700s, the original Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was located directly behind Independence Hall.

Conditions at this jail were appalling. Women and children were imprisoned with murderers and thieves in disease-ridden dirty pens. Rape and robbery were common occurrences.

Jailors made no effort to protect the prisoners from each other. Instead, they sold alcohol to the prisoners. Food, heat, and clothing all came at a price. It was not uncommon for prisoners to die from the cold and starvation.

A group of Philadelphia’s concerned citizens came together to address this public embarrassment.

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Rush who was a prominent Philadelphia physician * as a young doctor in London followed a suggestion, Ben Franklin offered-- he crossed the English Channel to listen to the new Enlightened thinking being shared in French parlors.

In 1787, he proposed several radical changes to be used at the Walnut Street Jail. Rush had come to the conclusion that crime was a “moral disease” and that to reform prisoners they needed a prison where they could get in touch with their spiritual side and then repent.

He felt this was the only way they would ever be rehabilitated.

His suggestions were put in place at the Walnut Street Jail. Prisoners were separated by sex and crime, and vocational workshops were held to occupy their time. Much of the “jailor” abusive behavior was abolished as well.

But the concerned citizens found these reforms were not enough--in part because of Philadelphia’s population including the criminal element was increasing rapidly.

Construction on the neo-Gothic Eastern State Penitentiary began on Cherry Orchard outside Philadelphia in 1822. This new prison had a revolutionary design never seen before.

Seven cellblocks were built in a spoke design surrounding a middle wheel or central hub. The building opened in 1829 with central heating, flush toilets, and shower baths in each cell. These cells actually had more modern accommodations than what President Andrew Jackson had at the White House.

Based upon Rush’s beliefs, each prisoner was housed in insolation in one of these cells 24/7. This model was good from the standpoint that prisoners could not escape. They were fed through a small hole, and they did chores such as shoemaking and weaving all in their cells.

Prison reformers from all over the world came to observe Eastern State’s new concept. Over 300 of these reformers took this idea back with them and developed prisons based upon this model.

* Benjamin Rush in 1776 was a member of the Second Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Ten years later, he pushed for the ratification of the federal Constitution. He was an outspoken abolitionist and later earned the title, “ father of American psychiatry” for his observations about the “diseases of the mind.”

Looks Better on Paper

But not everyone was enchanted with Eastern State. Charles Dickens, who visited in 1842, was highly critical. He stated keeping prisoners in a small cell 100 percent of the time with just their thoughts was a greater inhumane torture, than physically torturing them.

"I am persuaded that those who designed this system... do not know what it is they are doing... I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

By 1913, most agreed with Dickens. Eastern gave up the idea of “isolation and penitence.”

Prisoners now shared cells and worked together. They were even allowed to play organized sports.

By the 1920s, Eastern designed initially to hold 300 prisoners was holding over 2,000. To meet the overcrowded conditions, more and more cells were built.

Unfortunately, several of these cells were built underground without windows, lights, or plumbing. Eventually, solitude wasn’t about redemption, but punishment.

By the 1960s, Eastern State was falling apart. In 1971, it was officially closed. Over the 142 years, it was open the prison held over 75,000 inmates--including the gangster Al Capone.

In 1964 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. In 1994, it was reopened as a historic site and museum, this is when more of the hauntings began to be noticed…

Read Eastern State Penitentiary, Part ll where I share several stories about the ghosts that reside in this decaying building.

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