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Takeaway from Eastern State

ecohn's picture

            Eastern State Penitentiary is a foreboding reminder of a dark past.  I stand in my cell, wishing for a place to sit. But, considering my two options, a toilet or a metal bed frame, I decide to remain standing. The walls are chipped and there is gravel on the floor. This building showcases the remains of decades of trauma. I pace. Back and forth, around in circles. I soon realize I am making quite a racket with the heels of my shoes, so I try to stand still for a bit. I feel a strong temptation to grab my phone.

            Thirty minutes alone in a cell, and I couldn’t even do it.  How can I imagine the sentences dealt out during the prison’s prime? When it opened in 1829, the building stood tall. A fortress of innovation and reform. With a castle-like appearance, and top-rate appliances like heaters and plumbing, this penitentiary seemed like the most humane reform center of the time.

            Prisons of the day were brutal. They all practiced a similar mentality of locking each prisoner up with all the others, regardless of how dangerous the people were. This resulted in petty thieves and children being locked up with murderers and prostitutes. As one can imagine, this resulted in much corruption.

            Soon, Quaker reformers created a committee, titled “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” and complained about the conditions in American and European prisons.  

            Disgusted by the corruption, corporal punishment, and general ill treatment in the era’s prisons, the committee proposed a new prison which would abandon these old techniques, and instead focus of giving the prisoners time to think about what they had done, and become penitent. They developed a system of solitary confinement for each prisoner. This was a great idea. Instead of giving up on the prisoners, and writing them off as “bad people”, the system was designed to help the prisoners. They were supposed to finish their sentences with a new outlook on life, and be ready to re-embark on the journey of life.

            Well, this failed miserably.

            The reformers had such good intentions, hoping to transform previously mischievous people into productive members of society. No one knew that what solidarity would really lead to was madness.

            The idea of this prison reminded me of a television series that I used to watch. Solitary, which aired on the Fox Reality Channel about five years ago, was a self-declared “social experiment”, which examined contestant’s mental and physical strength. Contestants on the show were placed in solitary confinement for weeks, with only the computer “Val” giving them directions. During my time at Eastern State Penitentiary, this show came to my mind a few times.

            First was obviously with the idea of isolation. It was so interesting, if not disturbing as well, to watch the people in the series cope with the loneliness. However, an added factor in the television show was complete disorientation with time, as there were no windows or “eye of God” to let sunlight or moonlight in their cells.

            Secondly, I thought of the show because of the innovative architectural design of the cellblocks in Eastern State.  The hub-and-spoke plan of Eastern State is copied in a much smaller scale for the television show, as each person’s pod (or cell) branched out from a central octagon-shaped control center.  

            This architectural design, when created for Eastern State, was new and improved over other prison styles. It allowed for more convenient observing of the prisoners, and more ventilation throughout the building. In the prison’s later years, extra cellblocks were allowed to be created in between the original ones, thanks to the hub-and-spoke design.

            In Solitary, the television show, I don’t understand the use of the hub-and-spoke design. They don’t necessarily need room-to-room ventilation, nor is there some sort of guard who needed to watch the contestants—it’s a reality TV show, there were cameras everywhere.  I think the main reason that they’ve recreated the design for this show is to invoke emotion from those who know about the Eastern State Penitentiary.

            When I watched this show, I had no knowledge of the architectural influence of Eastern State Penitentiary, but on my trip there this weekend, it was a sudden, epiphany-like realization when I drew the connection between the two. I hypothesize that the creators of the series did research about isolation and solitary confinement throughout the years. I’m sure they read much about Eastern State, and they drew inspiration from there in many ways.

            Spending time in Eastern State Penitentiary was difficult, but I did learn a lot while there. I was able to make connections to modern day culture, thus showing a part of the extended influence that Eastern State has had on the world. I was also able to understand fully why the prison reform did not work as intended, and instead led to mad men.


Works Cited:


Roth, Mitchel P. "Radial Model." Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. N. pag. Print.


Norman, Johnston. "Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Arts." N.p., 1994. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.


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


Black, Annetta. "Eastern State Penitentiary." Atlas Obscura. N.p., 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <>.