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Life in Eastern State Penitentiary

Clairity's picture

    Prior to Eastern State Penitentiary, prisoners used to lock their prisoners together in a big, appalling and filthy room, and leave them to fight with each other. At the time, prisons only served as a place to hold the prisoners temporarily, but rather than a halfway house or workhouse that actually help to deal with their problems. Therefore, in pursuit of creating a more effective and helpful system for both inmates themselves and the society, Quaker reformers came up with an idea that they thought would definitely lead incarceration situation in the United States to a much brighter future. In 1829, the opening of Eastern State Penitentiary introduced their brand new way of incarceration -- isolation. Instead of staying in the same room, prisoners would go into their individual cell, which includes a bed, a desk and chair, a flushing toilet, heating pipes and a glass skylight. Since they couldn't have any visitors, they only had a Bible to keep them company. Their heads were covered whenever they went in or out of the cell, because in this way, it could prevent them from knowing where they were, and could ensure that their faces wouldn't be recognized once they got out.

     It seems to me that Eastern State Penitentiary was much more advanced and considering than the other prisons. It had central heating and lightness from the sky, which could be a really illuminating gratification for prisoners in the cell. Moreover, they had their own personal exercise yard where they could work out and breath the air for one hour every day. The highly advanced cell conditions here showed how earnest the builders of Eastern State really wanted to help the incarcerated to reform.

     Despite all these advantages Eastern State had over other prisons, the incarcerated life here was nonetheless no better than any other prison, even worse in fact. Solitary confinement, what made Eastern State distinctive and significant, was an innovative measure implemented by its creators to encourage the criminals to reflect and contemplate their behaviors. In this way, they could realize their sins under the "Eye of God" and truly reform themselves.

     However, such groundbreaking ideas and attempts were not successful after all. It didn't take very long for some prisoners to be driven depressed and even go crazy due to the isolation and silence surrounding them. Other inmates tried so hard to break the extreme solitude within the thick walls by communicating through water and heating pipes. In Jennifer Janofsky's article, Hopelessly Hardened, she discusses prisoners' massive use of pipes for conversation, and shows the results of an inspection conducted by the Prison Society, "So extensive had these communication networks become that by the 1850s the Prison Society worried that any semblance of inmate isolation was little more than fantasy"(Janofsky 110).

     Solitary restraint led to inmates' rebellion. The Penitentiary became much harder for its administrators and overseers to keep everything in control. Besides their frequent attempt to fight against their isolation, inmates purposefully dismissed their designated work, and often refused to meet with their moral counselor. They even started to play mind games by fomenting dissension between their working-class overseers and the middle-class administrators or visitors. Prisoners even formed relationships with the guards, who, as a matter of fact, shared more common interests with the prisoners than with the administrators.

     Such eager efforts to establish conversations with others demonstrated a distinctive kind of human nature. They were so surprisingly resistant to isolation, and endeavored to make contact with their peers. Nobody in the Penitentiary seemed to be able to withstand this absolute solitude. And not much people really spent their entire term of sentence reflecting on their mistakes and contemplating how to be a better person once they got out. In the opposite, they were overwhelmed by this kind of solitary confinement, which is considered as a more severe punishment than normal cells in the contemporary prisons, and tried every means to escape the horror and torture.

     Rebellion seemed like a reasonable reaction, especially after I experienced this daunting fortress by staying in a cell by myself. I could only occupy myself by observing every little details within the cell, which didn't take me too long. I stared at the sky through the window above, distracting myself from the rusty walls surrounding me. Whenever other visitors passing by or coming in, I would put on my earphones and pretend to listen to the audio tour. Embarrassed by putting myself in such position, I couldn't wait to get out of this chilly, shabby confinement. I could not even begin to imagine how much the prisoners must have suffered in their years of sentences.

     To sum up, the relatively better cell conditions didn't compensate for Eastern State's "cruel" way of administration, which was originally intended to be illuminating for the incarcerated. Eventually, isolation was not an effective way to improve American prison system as the Quaker reformers had thought. It fell apart due to humans' perseverance in overcoming whatever obstacles that got in the way of their communications with other people. If reformers truly want to achieve improvements, they need to put themselves in the shoes of prisoners and experience their incarcerated lives, rather than to come up with a fantasy idea that's based on pure theory or assumption that could actually result in the opposite effects.