I was halfway down Block 1 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, peering into a cell for a thief imprisoned in 1829, when I realized the place resembled a Carthusian monastery.
Members of Catholicism’s most austere order, Carthusian monks live, eat, work and sleep alone in “cells,” coming out only for church services and a four-hour walk each week. They are forbidden to speak unless given permission. Each man has a tiny walled yard where he can look at the sky and feel the sun. As the wonderful book “An Infinity of Little Hours” (2006) makes clear, it’s a life balanced between sanctity and madness.
In the first era of Eastern State’s 142-year life as a prison, inmates spent 23 hours a day in their cells, with two half-hour recesses in private yards reached by a stoop-through door. Their only reading material was the Bible, and they spoke to no one but guards and the chaplain. If they left their cells, they were hooded. Some spent years inside the massive stone walls without seeing the face of another prisoner.
Today, it seems odd that this was ever viewed as a way to cure antisocial behavior. But it was. In fact, the “Pennsylvania system” was penology’s breakthrough idea, rescuing murderers, burglars, forgers and confidence men from cruel treatment by keepers and fellow miscreants. Eastern State, the idea’s embodiment, went on to be the model for 300 prisons on four continents.
Seeing how “penitence” got into the word “penitentiary” is just one revelation that awaits a visitor to Eastern State Penitentiary, surely one of the country’s more unusual museums.
In the travel industry, prison museums are a growth sector. A book published last year, “Escape to Prison: Penal Tourism and the Pull of Punishment,” looks at 10 of the roughly 100 of them around the world. Although some (like Alcatraz, or South Africa’s Robben Island) are better known than Eastern State, few can compete with it.
“In its educational and historical narrative, it’s clearly at the top,” said Michael Welch, the Rutgers University sociologist who wrote the book. “It’s not a theme park. It’s not intended to amuse you.”
It is, in the words of Steve Buscemi, who narrates the indispensable audio guide, “a magnificent ruin.”
The architecture is Gothic Revival, with 30-foot walls of Wissahickon schist, faux battlements and two gargoyles over the entrance holding lengths of chain. Inside, the walls are flaking paint and spalling rock dust. Birds swoop in and out of broken windows. Vines and saplings have taken up residence where prisoners worked and lived.
One of the prison’s innovations was its hub-and-spoke design, which is still used in many prisons. Cellblocks radiate from a central rotunda, where guards kept watch. Seven blocks are open to visitors, and hundreds of cells have been left as they were when their occupants moved out in 1971, down to tipped-over stools and open drawers.
Guides are stationed around the prison and the grounds. (Several I spoke to were recent Temple University history and archaeology graduates.) They give mini-tours to parts of what was essentially a walled town forced to evolve without changing its footprint.
“Soup Alley” is a covered walkway with cafeteria counters on either side, built in 1924, when inmates started eating together. A stove with an oven door open is covered with dust near where a tarred roof has collapsed. A dining room, created by knocking down the walled yards of the nearby cells, stands empty.
Part of Cellblock 3 was converted to a hospital in 1880. A tree root snakes over the door to the operating room, added in 1910. Inside, a steel IV pole sits in a corner and a surgical lamp the size of a searchlight hangs from the ceiling. Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent time at Eastern State in 1929, had two operations there. One was a tonsillectomy; the other, unnamed, was probably a circumcision. (Capone had syphilis, and circumcision would reduce the chance he’d transmit it.)
It’s remarkable that people are allowed in such places in this era of phobias over lead paint, trip hazards and things-you-may-have-to-duck-under. The museum shows respect for the good sense of its visitors, who numbered 194,000 last year (30,000 in group tours).
The idea for a new kind of prison originated at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787. (Benjamin Franklin was an early member.) Inspired by Quaker ideals and Enlightenment thinking, the prison was designed to induce regret and penitence in prisoners. It was more than 30 years before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took the suggestion. Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gate in 1829.
The corridors and cells have vaulted ceilings that suggest an ecclesiastical setting. The single skylight in each cell was called an “eye of God.” The food was reputedly good. Pipes under the floor delivered central heat, and bucket-flush toilets connected to a sewage system. This was a time, the commentary points out, when the White House had neither of those amenities.
However, not everyone agreed that solitary confinement was the route to reformation. Charles Dickens toured the penitentiary in 1842 and wrote: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body . . . it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment . . .”
The “Pennsylvania System” of solitary confinement didn’t last long. As early as the 1840s some prisoners had cellmates, and in 1913 the strategy was abandoned. New multi-tiered cellblocks were squeezed in between the original ones. By the 1920s, the institution built for 700 inmates housed 2,000.
The place is so big and operated for so long that the opportunities for narrative are legion. And the museum takes full advantage of them.
There are displays about women prisoners (who were there until 1923), race in prison, prison gangs and famous inmates. You can see the restored synagogue, Capone’s cell and the place from which 12 people, including the bank robber Willie Sutton, escaped (temporarily) through a tunnel. A dozen cells have been given over to artists for installations. On display now is a reconstruction of a cell from Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. Another, called “Other Absences,” has pictures of 50 men, women and one child murdered by former inmates hanging from the ceiling of two cells.
What wasn’t addressed for years, however, was the growth of imprisonment in the United States, a trend known as mass incarceration.
“There was this massive blind spot,” said Sean Kelley, the director of interpretation and public programming who was the museum’s first full-time staff member in 1995. “The old ending of the audio tour asked people to reflect on the current incarceration system. But we didn’t give them any facts on which to reflect. It was essentially the same as saying, ‘Drive safe.’ ”
Today, the facts are hard to miss. They take the form of a $100,000 sculpture erected in 2014 in the center of the exercise yard.
For every decade since 1900, the number of people imprisoned in the United States per 100,000 population is depicted as a steel box of proportionate height. Through 1980 the rate varied from 100 to 200. Those boxes are a couple of feet high; you could step from one to the next if they let you. Then the rate took off. In 2010, it was 730 per 100,000, and the box is 16 feet tall. Viewed from other angles, the 3-D infographic compares the U.S. imprisonment rate with that of other countries, and it also depicts the racial breakdown of the American prison population over time.
The museum is finding other ways, as well, to engage the subject of crime and punishment. On the first Tuesday of each month, a scholar, author or public official gives a talk in the rotunda, followed by a reception. September’s speaker, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, was shouted down by Black Lives Matter protesters.
Eastern State Penitentiary, too massive and obsolete to be repurposed after it closed, has found new life helping people, once again, think about the purpose of imprisonment. Its long-dead founders would be pleased.