EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
By Corazon Aguirre
The Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reasoning was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason and humanistic principles as the primary source of authority and legitimacy.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison followed closely European ideas and later incorporated some of the ideals of Enlightenment into the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and into the United States Constitution in 1787. Benjamin Franklin also played an active role in the Age of Reason and brought the newest ideas of Enlightenment from Europe to Philadelphia.
In 1787, the members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in the house of Benjamin Franklin to express their growing concern with the conditions of American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush shared the Society’s goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design. The radical goal was to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create a genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.
Thanks to the humanistic principles of the 18th century Philadelphia society and the open mind of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Eastern State Penitentiary was born and opened its doors in 1829.
This intimidating medieval structure was conceptualized and described by the British-born architect John Haviland as a forced monastery and as a machine for reform. The new penitentiary left behind corporal punishment, ill treatment, and moved the criminal of the 19th century toward spiritual reflection and change. Charles Williams was admitted as prisoner number one.
The advocates of the new penitentiary system believed that criminals exposed to isolation and self-awareness of their erratic behavior and crimes would become genuinely penitent and reform.
The Pennsylvania system epitomized by the Eastern State Penitentiary served as an inspiration and model for more than 300 prisons in Europe, Asia, South America, and across the British Empire. Its unique geometric shape and its regimen of isolation became a symbol of modern and progressive reformation for almost 85 years.
Charles Dickens along with other critics of the isolation method eventually prevailed and the Pennsylvania system was abandoned in 1913. However, years later, when more cell blocks were constructed, the isolation system came back again, but with a slight twist. Subterranean and windowless cells, with neither light nor plumbing made the new “Klondike” cells the perfect tool for punishment rather than redemption.
Gangster Al Capone is one of the most notorious criminals held in Eastern State Cells. In 1929, he was sentenced to one year in prison. His surpassing power allowed him to have visible privileges that eased, cheered, and warmed the punishable side of his sentence.
The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971 due to the prison’s need of costly repairs and bringing the era of the solitary prison to the end.