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The Relevance of Eastern State Penitentiary

tomahawk's picture

When analyzing the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary, I must distinguish the layout of the cells from that of the prison; the cells were designed with penitence in mind whereas the prison was designed to effectively monitor and control the lives of the prisoners. In each cell, there is a long skinny window. This window encouraged the prisoner to look toward the heavens and contemplate his relationship with God. The architecture of the cell further highlights this window. With an arched ceiling and bare white walls, the cell did not distract the prisoner from his own thoughts nor did it allow the prisoner to escape the light pouring in. Though the cell is dank and cold, light reaches every corner of it in the daytime. Separating the cell from the rest of the prison are thick walls and small doors. Both the walls and the doors illustrate a meeting point between the design of the cell and that of the prison. The thick walls made it harder for prisoners to communicate with each other and more difficult for prisoners to escape. The doors also emphasized the importance of both penitence and control in Eastern State Penitentiary. When walking through the small doors, prisoners had to duck their heads and were humbled before fully entering their cells. Moreover, the wooden door, which extended past the door frame, sealed the prisoner into his cell. In contrast to the individual cells, the prison was not designed to reform prisoners, but to enable constant surveillance. Each of the prison’s halls meets in a center room, which provided prison guards with a 360 degree view of the prison at all times. Furthermore, two mirrors are mounted on either side of one of the hallways. This allowed prison guards to look in front and behind them simultaneously. 

Although this is the architecture of the prison, it is not the prison that I saw when I was in Eastern State Penitentiary. And, after looking at the remarks of my classmates, I do not believe they saw this prison (this pinnacle of penitence and control) either. I believe we focused on the cracked windows and the decomposing walls. When I felt anxious, I was not nervous because of the design of the second floor walkways, which were long and narrow. I was anxious because the whole building, including the walkways, looked as if they were about to crumble. When I was afraid in Eastern State Penitentiary, I was frightened by the thought of ghosts that have been said to haunt eerie walls like these. Yet, I was not scared because I was in a place in which people were once tortured with solitary confinement. Since time has altered the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary, I easily looked past the Guantanamo Bay prison cell and the signs that documented current American incarceration. In comparison with the current state of Eastern State, modern prisons seemed much nicer and more humane. 

I forgot time. This is an easy thing to do because time is never clearly perceived (we can’t touch it, sniff it, lick it). Still, time is an important thing to keep in mind when contemplating the significance of any building. To fully understand the importance of the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary, I had to see it as a precedent and, at the same time, be weary of displacing it in to the past. I had to remember that Eastern State is extremely relevant to current United States incarceration. As a precedent, Eastern State Penitentiary is significant because other prisons were modeled after it and other people invested in the “benefits” of solitary confinement. Yet, by no means, is Eastern State Penitentiary a place of the past (as its current state portrays it to be). Solitary confinement is still used worldwide to discipline prisoners, and other prison’s designs bear an uncanny resemblance to Eastern State (i.e. the panopticon). 

As the Guantanamo Bay cell and the signs at Eastern State Penitentiary show, the prison became a museum because it was supposed to educate people. Going to Eastern State, I was supposed to become aware of both the problems with solitary confinement and the problems with incarceration in the U.S. However, while looking at the architecture of Eastern State, I was more worried by the peeling paint than anything else. And, I am still worried about the peeling paint. Now, I fear that I am not the only person who will see Eastern State as a fixture of the past. Initially, Eastern State Penitentiary was not meant to distract the prisoner from his own thoughts. Now, it distracts the tourist from fully comprehending the terrible state of U.S. prisons today.