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Play in the City 028


Eastern State Penitentiary is a crumbling heap of rock and iron. While, in its heyday, it was a marvel of prison technology, the methods are today understood to be cruel and inhumane. Cells were designed to cut off all interaction, except with the guard, who wore wool socks over their shoes so as to minimize the sound of their footfall, and with the preacher, who attempted to convert them to Protestantism. There was nothing to do except work, and if one attempted to communicate with other prisoners, he or she was punished.

ESP was a marvel of technology. It had a revolutionary heating and plumbing system not present even in the White House at that time. Thick walls prevented prisoners from speaking to one another, for ESP was not intended to be an ordinary prison. Rather than just house criminals, it would isolate them, induce self-contemplation, and lead to repentance. ESP was a pioneer in the pursuit of reforming prisoners through isolation. Its creators believed that prisoners in solitude would come to terms with their crime, repent of their sins and go on to live more wholesome lives. The design of ESP forced prisoners to spend time examining their own hearts, and, ideally, to pray for forgiveness. It provided prisoners ample time and silence to think over their wrongdoings.

Consequently, Eastern State was more of a place of torture than of reform. Without company, many prisoners went mad, suffering from hallucinations, self-harming, or attacking their guards. They had to fight back in order to stay sane, so many refused work, and many were discovered employing ingenious ways to communicate, through the heating and plumbing or through the open roof. Spending only thirty minutes in a prison cell was difficult for many of my classmates. Several mentioned being sad or scared, and others said they felt as though they could have gone mad themselves, had there not been the comforts of passerby, companions, or the promise of freedom in half an hour. If thirty minutes was terrifying, what must years have been like?

The idea of reforming prisoners rather than just locking them up was revolutionary and enlightening, but it was an idea too good to come true. Eastern State’s practices did not work. The isolation attempts failed, the doctrines were rejected, and there is no way to know if people repented. Eastern made a marvelous prison, but a terrible halfway house or reform center.

Eastern State may have been founded on a good idea- not writing prisoners off as worthless unchangeable criminals, but trying to help them be better people- but the methods did not work and were inhumane. From the point of view of a contemporary citizen, ESP was a place that stripped people of what made them human and prevented people from holding onto their sanity. It was a method of torture: instead of helping people as the founders had hoped, it took away every liberty a person has.