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The Downfall of Eastern State Penitentiary

lksmith's picture

            When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, it was meant to be the greatest prison created to date. The Quaker reformers who conceived the prison were disgusted by the way in which incarceration was handled in the United States. Everything from the physical condition of the prison itself to the treatment of the prisoners was good for nothing more than detaining criminals as opposed to trying to actually solve the problem. Eastern State was meant to solve all of those problems by looking at incarceration from an entirely new perspective.   

            As a concept, Eastern State was the perfect prison. It was designed for penitence through solitary confinement. The idea was that if the prisoners were forced to be alone with their nothing but their own thoughts for the duration of their sentence, they would eventually reflect on their crimes and reform their ways at some point. Each prisoner had their own cell and exercise yard where they were confined for the entirety of their sentence. In order for this to work, the quality standard of the cells had to be higher including the best plumbing and heating available. One of the main points the Quaker reformers worked towards was that the prisoners were not being punished but rather reformed and prepared to reenter society to need incarceration again.

            In practice, Eastern State was not quite everything its creators had imagined. Isolation had effects on the prisoners that had not been anticipated. Humans tend to be social creatures and therefore are somewhat dependent on human interaction to survive. However, the plan thought up by the creators of Eastern State did not factor this into their plan. The extended solitary confinement enforced through this system drove many of the inmates to desperate measures to create human interactions and even lead to insanity. This was the first key sign that the progressive ideas of Eastern State were bound to fail.            

            When I visited Eastern State, I spent some time in a cell contemplating what it must have felt like to be a prisoner incarcerated there. Within moments of entering the cell I was already desperate to leave. The space that from the outside had seemed so spacious, was in fact suffocating and extremely confined. I tried to think of what kinds of things I would do if I were a prisoner living in the cell I had chosen. First I examined every inch of the cell over and over until I felt that I knew every part of it in great detail. Next, I paced the cell and measured the length and width of the cell relative to my foot size, wanting to use that as a reference when I finally did get out. In the cell I chose there was a window on the back wall as opposed to having the Eye of God window on the ceiling. I stared vacantly out the window to the neighboring part of the prison. As I stood there I let my mind wander, no longer thinking about what I was doing. By the end of the half hour I was “incarcerated” I had found myself at the point of hearing sounds that were not really ther from the empty neighbor cells.

            My experience in the cell showed me that even though the solitude does tend to become consumed in their own thoughts and potentially to penitent about their crimes. However, this does not matter if they have lost their sanity in the process. The Eastern State method of breaking the prisoner’s spirit through solitude broke them down in more ways than the creators had ever imagined when they conceived their initial plan. Also, the intensity of the solitude the prisoners were forced to experience drove them to spend their endless time alone trying to find ways to communicate with one another and break the monotony of prison life. They found ways to send messages to one another by flushing messages through the toilets, talking near the ceiling windows, and trying to break through the walls enough to communicate between the cells. The time and energy put into defying the rules they were places under distracted prisoners from the task they were supposed to be facing, contemplation.

            Eastern State Penitentiary was founded on the idea that solitude would encourage contemplation and penitence in criminals. However, the experiment that Eastern State served as, failed because the Quaker reformer that conceived this idea did not consider the negative effects that are caused by extended solitary confinement. This one sided view of the conditions created at Eastern State was the key reason for its failure.


Work Cited

Janofsky, Jennifer L. ""Hopelessly Hardened"" Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. Ed. Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. Athens: University of Georgia, 2012. 106-23. Print.


Other information about Eastern State Penitentiary came from the audio tour of the prison and other resources provided by the prison.