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The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

AnotherAbby's picture

-Can’t you see that it’s changing? We’re living in a time of Enlightenment, and we’ve got to keep up!

-But why the prisons?

-Who better to reform? The human man has so much potential! We’ve got to focus on preventing crimes rather than punishing for them.

-So are we not going to punish criminals? Are we just going to release them back onto the streets?

-No, not at all. We’ll give them time to reflect on their crimes, and make peace with God. Don’t you see? They’ll be reformed!


The building is falling. The rooms are cold, so cold, but the ruined walls give the illusion that they had at point been warm. In fact, the audio tour conforms that this relic was always too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, despite the fact that it boasted one of the first central heating systems, but the broken windows and holes in walls seem to excuse its current temperature. There is a subconscious justification that it is cold in here because the building is old and broken; not because it was always this way. This place was built more to make people penitent than comfortable.


-We’ll have to keep them in isolation, to prevent the insincere from contaminating the reforming. It will keep them away from the crimes that have become so rampant in older prisons as a result of the convicted intermixing and causing trouble.

-Yes, each man shall have his own cell, and within it he may reflect upon his actions. We must allow them to work as well, so that they make keep the penitentiary running.


            Spinning in the center of the room, one can see every cellblock. The oldest cellblocks, those built first, are all one level, while those built after the state intervened to say it wanted the penitentiary to house a larger capacity have as many as three levels. Each one was originally slated to have one prisoner for every cell, but as the prison fell farther from its original ideals, many prisoners got roommates. The prison’s original design principles valued isolation as a tool to induce remorse; to really force inmates to take a good long look at themselves and repent for their crimes. That did work, in a way. What ended up driving people mad were the years they had left to rot in solitude in the penitentiary before they could be released.  


-"No prisoner is seen by another after he enters the wall. When the years of confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave and the prisoner can go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous misdeeds are unknown."-Unknown Quaker (Walsh)


            It is odd now to try to understand the failings of this revolutionary prison. Of course, it seems to have been unsuccessful in its original purpose because of the failings in implementing its vision: The prison quickly became overcrowded due to demand, guards used corporal punishment, an idea abhorred by Quakers, and the system had totally fallen apart by the Twentieth Century. However, one of the largest reasons the original practices of Eastern State were forgone in favor of the ways of other prisons was the rampant mental illness that the solitary confinement created in the prisoners. Many of the masterminds of the Penitentiary thought that the solitary confinement forced the prisoners to focus all their energy into repenting and reforming, while critics of the prison argued that the system of isolation was a worse torture than the punishment that was standard of other prisons at the time. It is easy to say that the Quakers had the best of intentions when designing this prison. It is harder to say that it would have succeeded had it better stuck to their ideals.


-This place we create will be more humane by miles than those that have come before it. Penitents will have that which they are denied in other prisons: the ability to repent for their crimes and accept the love of God. Maybe, God willing, someday these buildings need not even exist. One can only hope.




Works Cited

"Eastern State Penitentiary: General Overview." Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern State Penitentiary, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.

Johnston, Norman Bruce, Kenneth Finkel, and Jeffrey A. Cohen. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art for the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force of the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, 1994. Print.

Lynch, Jack. "Cruel and Unusual Prisons and Prison Reform." History. Colonial Williamsburg, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <>.

Walsh, Mike. "Black Hoods and Iron Gags The Quaker Experiment at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia." Mission CREEP. Mouth Wash, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <>.