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I saw the hopelessness in the eyes of the prisoners.

Phoenix's picture

Eastern is a relic, a decrepit pile of rocks and metal. While in its heyday it was the height of prison technology, it was, in many ways, utterly inhumane. [Cells] smaller than they should have been, particularly for housing two people, and designed to cut off interaction with others- that is torture. Eastern State is a lens into the past, showing the beginning intentions of incarceration in the US and how they changed. It’s an inspiring and illuminating pioneer in reforming the prisons although it failed.

 Eastern State was a prison unlike any other, where the methods were so damaging to the human spirit, and was so radical that the fascination that came with the prison was far greater than the suffering. Eastern State is not successful. Treating prisoners so cruelly with isolation will only drive them madder. ESP was a place you wouldn’t want to end up in lest you enjoyed the company of your own criminal soul and the judging eye of god.  Prison reform in Eastern State was one of the cruelest and severe. Prisoner’s lack of communication and isolation did not aid in improvement but rather inspired rebellion. Eastern state was a cold, somewhat menacing, but still contemplative, cell, separated from everything. 

Eastern state penitentiary is an exemplary pioneer in the pursuit of reforming prisoners through isolation. ESP was a place where they believed prisoners in solidarity would be able to repent for their sins, so that upon their release they would live more wholesome lives. The original design of Eastern state forced people to really look into themselves and their actions, alone in a cell with nothing to do but explore your own mind allows a person to form a new perspective on themself. Eastern state was a place for prisoners to come to terms with what they’d done, and to pray in solitude for forgiveness. It is a place where prisoners try to fight against isolation, which is meant by the builders in order to make the inmates contemplate and reflect towards reformation. Eastern State is truly unlike the other prisons today, prisoners must face perhaps the strongest punishment of our time, solitude. Eastern state provided prisoners with ample time and silence to think over their wrong doings, confess and improve themselves.

Eastern State was more torture or prison than reform center. 5 years of no contact with the outside world, apart from that obnoxious preacher and the occasional guard. Constant, unending boredom, or the constant threat of discovery and punishments if attempts to alleviate that boredom were discovered. Eastern State seemed more like a place of torture than reform. Solitary confinement can quickly make a person go mad, so I understand why Eastern State had so many problems, especially after getting a short glimpse at what the prisoners experienced. Spending only thirty minutes was torture. I can’t even begin to imagine how much the prisoners suffered locked away in isolation and darkness. If I had been truly alone I would have gone crazy like some of the prisoners did, but the people walking by distracted me enough that I could be okay being in the cell--any less than that and I could see how the Quakers expected contemplation on the prisoners’ lives. ESP left a haunting feeling with me, even in the brief time I spent alone in the cell I felt scared and isolated, without access to anyone or anything. I realized how terrifying spending time alone with yourself can be, and I cannot imagine how awful this place would have been for the prisoners. 

The idea of reforming prisoners rather than just looking them up was revolutionary and enlightening, even though it tended not to work in the practices Eastern State used. Eastern state failed, an idea too good to come true. The isolation attempts failed, the doctrines were rejected, and there’s no way to know if people repented. Eastern made a marvelous prison, but a terrible half way 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 POV of a contemporary citizen who is interested in prison reform, ESP was a place that stripped people of what made them human, and prevented people from performing acts that keep people sane. It could almost be seen as a method of torture, where instead of helping people as the founders had hoped, it took away every liberty a person has.