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Taylor Milne's picture

We as humans think we can be alone, and think that a day by one’s self in a prison would be fine, but in this day and age we are never alone. I could say that I have spent a day alone by myself, but in reality that would be a day alone with a television and a laptop and a cell phone with access to an endless amount of entertainment, but in an Eastern State Penitentiary cell, one is completely alone. For the first couple of minutes it was bizarre, I was not talking to anyone, I did not have any page to read, any screen to watch, anything to touch. Scared to sit on the floor, I found myself standing in the middle of the room looking above through the tunneled skylight contemplating how prisoners would have spent their time in these prisons. I spent the next few minutes thinking of all of the things I could do to occupy my time: sleep, sing, think… And then I felt completely alone. I knew that there was someone in the cell next to me, and I could hear people speaking down the cellblock, but nonetheless I still felt trapped even with the knowledge that I could step out of the cell at anytime.

            I was overwhelmed by the brief time I spent in the cell, and it is interesting to think that in its inception, Eastern State Penitentiary was supposed a kindness towards the prisoners. The Quakers who designed Eastern State imagined it to be a comfortable place where prisoners would have the opportunity to contemplate on their actions, and emerge after their term as a more wholesome human being. However, these hopes were not fulfilled, as even though the living conditions were top of the notch, the isolation made the prisoners angry, and led many of them into madness.

            The cells themselves now are deteriorating, with sections of the prisons netted in order to catch the pieces of the ceiling that were falling, but when looking at the renovated cell one can see that it could have been a pleasant place to spend a jail term. It is a place to keep prisoners, so it is not spectacular, but comparatively it was quite nice, and would have been an okay place for the prisoners, if they were permitted to have contact with one another.

            Forcing the prisoners to be penitent inspired the prisoners to rebel rather than inspiring them to become better people. With the prison reigning out of control, everything fell to pieces. The prisoners were unhappy, and the methods often used were abusive, breaking the prisoners mentally until they cracked. Although everyone could see that this “Pennsylvania Model” of a prison was both cruel and ineffective, yet it was a great amount of time before anything changed. I see this model of a prison to be completely inhumane, and although it was created with good intentions, those intentions fell short of reality, and no one was willing to acknowledge this as a problem.

            Prior to my trip to Eastern State I had never physically been inside a prison of any kind, and I felt that the entire experience was a mixture of gloominess and excitement. It was gloomy because I was able to see the ghostly remains of a place that once held criminals captive in a tortuous way, but the excitement came from the commercialization of the prison since it has become a museum of sorts. I felt almost guilty being there talking to people and laughing while I was able to wander the grounds, while knowing that in this same place hundreds of people were kept through inhumane methods. However, we have to look at the world today and notice that there are many prisoners who are living in the same and even worse conditions throughout the world.

            It is hard to look back and see how terrible Eastern State was for its inmates, but at the same time during the tour I kept thinking about all of the violence that occurs within the prison system today, and how no matter how hard we try to prevent this violence, we keep looking away even though we are clearly failing, just as Eastern State failed many years ago. No matter how much people may like to think it, we still have not found a perfect model for the prison system, and with more people being incarcerated everyday, it seems that this is a pressing issue that we just keep avoiding.