Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


clarsen's picture

Eastern State Penitentiary’s Quaker reformers had high hopes to create one of the first revolutionary and successful prisons of their time.  Their model was the largest and most expensive ever erected and soon inspired other prisons and jails across the world.  It’s grand gothic architecture was successful in isolating prisoners and minimizing contact between inmates.  Eastern State was the first prison to offer heating and plumbing in every cell, a luxury not even available to the President in the White House at the time.  Beforehand, prisons treated inmates with extreme physical punishment and labor.  Eastern State took on a new approach where they left criminals alone in their cells to contemplate their wrongdoings and repent.  This horrible neglect did not produce the results that were highly anticipated, however.  Much more torture than privilege, criminals were forced to remain alone in their cell without contact or communication with the outside world.

            The terrible living standards inspired prisoners to rebel against their guards and wardens.  Prisoners who were locked up in a tiny cell nearly all day and night resisted solitary confinement.  Inmates were able to communicate through their plumbing when cleared either by tapping, yelling, or sticking notes through it.  If a prisoner laid a hand on a guard they were severely beat and kicked back to their cell.  Not only was communication limited, but sight as well.  When inmates were allowed to leave their cramped cell, a fabric mask was placed over their face.  This prevented them from learning the layout of the prison and discovering what their fellow prisoners looked like. 

            Much thought was put into the layout of Eastern State Penitentiary in order to keep it’s prisoners isolated, in sight, and confused.  At the end of some halls, mirrors were placed in order for guards to see inmates from the circular center hall.  Towers were built so that the prison could remain under constant surveillance.  “Cells are equipped with feed doors and individual exercise yards to prevent contact between inmates, and minimize contact between inmates and guards” ("Eastern State Penitentiary").  In each cell, an eerie skylight was placed which was the only light source in the room.  The small window was referred to as the “eye of God”, which watched from above as inmates supposedly repented for their sins.

            While visiting Eastern State Penitentiary, I found myself feeling disoriented and baffled turning corners.  One of the few ways that allowed me to find my way around the prison was the numbers above each hall.  It’s architecture certainly succeeded in confusing visitors and I can see how it was nearly impossible to escape.  I also noticed how tiny and depressing inmate’s cells were, after spending only thirty minutes inside I became antsy, bored, and annoyed.  This was without isolation, as many visitors were walking inside and past me, and can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for an Eastern State inmate’s stay.  On the audio tour, Steve Buscemi quoted a man saying “I consider torture of the mind much more severe than torture of the body”.  It is believed that Eastern State was one of the most painful and tormenting prisons to stay.  Locking up inmates in solitary confinement only made prisoners insane and hostile.

"Eastern State Penitentiary." Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.