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The Failure of Eastern Penitentiary

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Eastern state was built as a place for prisoners to come to terms with their crimes, to pray in solitude for forgiveness. Now all that remains is an eerie building, a skeleton of the failed experiment: Eastern State was more torture or prison than reform center, which effectively tried to break prisoners down mentally with silence and solitude. Imagine how much smaller, lonelier, life must be when one’s only hope for diversion comes from the guards, the preacher, or the thin hope of making contact with other prisoners; solitary confinement can quickly make a person go mad. It is understandable, then, why inmates worked so hard for the rare opportunity to communicate with the other prisoners. In the end, the goals of the prison unrealized and the rules ignored or out dated, Eastern State Penitentiary was nothing more than an experiment that failed.


The idea of reforming prisoners rather than just locking them up was revolutionary and enlightened when the prison was first built; Eastern State was a pioneer in the persuite of reforming prisoners through insolation. Its creators believed that all men could be saved, could repent for their sins and live productive lives after their release, so they provided prisoners with ample time and silence to think over their wrong doings, to confess and improve themselves It was thought that since it was ‘human nature’ to do good, the insolation could only remove them from harmful influences, help them find their way back to God and the ‘right path’. The original design of Eastern State was similar to that of a wagon wheel, with the cells lined up along the wheel’s spokes. The cells themselves were designed such that they could only be entered from outside of the building through the exercise yards; the interior wall along the ‘spoke’ had nothing more than a cubby hole through which food was given. This design was intended to force prisoners into introspection, and repentance and correction from there.


Eastern State may have been founded on a good idea, but the methods were ineffective and inhumane. No contact with the outside world, apart from the preacher guards, constant, unending boredom,  the constant threat of discovery and punishments if subversion attempts were discovered; that is no way to live. Many prisoners went mad, or took ill, due to the solitary confinement. There was simply no way to force prisoners to welcome that lonely existence. The restrictions inspired more rebellion than repentance, for what else is there to do but plan when locked alone in a room most of the day? Rebellion is an effective way to break the monotony, whether teasing the preacher to talking with fellow convicts. It became an ongoing battle between the convicts and the guards for the control of the prison.


Eastern state penitentiary was overall a failure: prisoners found ways to defy, manipulate or rebuff their reformers, and the ideals of the prison crumbled with its walls. Over time, the prison grew more crowded, until many of the cells held two or more people. The guards bonded with the prisoners, connecting more so with them than with their upper class bosses. The Penitentiary, far from the place of reform it was intended to be, was more like to drive prisoners mad with its inhumane conditions.  It stripped people of what made them human, and prevented people from performing basic sanity-keeping acts. It was a method of torture; instead of helping crimonals as the founders had hoped, it took away every liberty and hope a person had. This is why the Eastern Penitentiary was a failure.