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Improvement: Eastern State Penitentiary

Muni's picture

As I walked into Eastern State Penitentiary, it was hard to imagine anyone living there. The place was in ruin, stable but very obviously crumbled and corroded. Aside from the audio tour guide’s voice in my ears, the hallways were quiet, with some rooms restored to how they would’ve looked during the prison’s prime. They were almost Church like, as intended by the building’s designer, and much more livable looking than how I imagine today’s prisons. Imagining the silence that accompanied the space, though, it was easy to see why so many of the inmates were incredibly unhappy in their time at Eastern State.

Eastern State Penitentiary was founded in 1829 by a Quaker group called the "Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons”  (General Overview). It was revolutionary for its time, a prison meant to change prisoners for the better instead of merely locking them up. Its silent, penitentiary atmosphere was coupled with impressive accommodations for its prisoners: heat, decent food, and better plumbing than the white house had at that time. They were even taught “honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like)” to carry with them into the outside world (General Overview). The only catch was that the prisoners had virtually no contact with anything that could distract them from their own thoughts. They ate alone, exercised alone, and had access to only one book, The Bible. They never saw any of the other prisoners, and their only company was a window on each ceiling called, “The Eye of God.”  

Ideally, the prisoners would have taken advantage of the constant silence, and become truly penitent for their criminal actions. They would have read The Bible, worked on their new trade skill, thought about what they hoped for in the outside world, and prayed throughout the day for forgiveness. Most prisoners, however, were driven nearly crazy by the utter aloneness they were forced into. A year alone does not pass in the blink of an eye, and most prisoners faced longer sentences. The Quakers’ hopes that the prisoners would be productive were met in a different way than expected. Clarence Alexander Rae, a prisoner brought in in 1916, wrote an entire book of poetry, Tales of a Walled Town, but it was about the horrors of the prison (Notable Inmates). And his time alone didn’t appear to inspire much penitence--he was brought back in after his release for stealing (Notable Inmates).  The "Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons" had an amazing vision for the results of Eastern State: it would rehabilitate its prisoners so they could become a functioning part of society upon their release, and it would prevent them from needing to return to incarceration. Yet, Eastern State Penitentiary never accomplished this goal, however noble it was. 

At the end of the tour of Eastern State, we were free to explore, and read information on posters around the prison as we did so. I was particularly struck by a sign displaying statistics for the percentage of people incarcerated in different countries. The U.S. was first, and by an alarming amount. One in every 99.1 adults is in jail, according to a report from the Pew Center on the States (Liptak).  From the time of this crumbling prison forwards, the U.S. doesn’t appear to have made much progress in its jailing systems. A study in 1994 tracked released prisoners for 3 years, and of nearly 300,000, 67.5% were re-arrested (BJS). 

Without statistics from Eastern State in its prime, it is hard to tell if the U.S. has become more or less effective on rehabilitating its prisoners. Could Eastern State’s extreme methods have made more of a difference than today’s? Could Eastern State’s ideals of honest work and penitence be coupled with the more social incarceration techniques of today to create an entirely more  humane yet effective system?

"Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <>.

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

"Notable Inmates." Eastern State Penitentiary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <>.

Liptak, Adam. "1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says." The New York Times. The New York Times, February 28, 2008. Web. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.<>.