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Shattering Silence and An Eye of God

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 05:00 PM

Eastern State Penitentiary (Albert Vecerka, 2001)

In our Morality show, we tell the story of Eastern State Penitentiary -- a radical new kind of prison engineered to crack into the hearts and minds of 19th-Century criminals, and make them feel true remorse.

It didn't work. The prison, and the ideals that gave rise to its strange new layout and inner workings, were eventually abandoned. The once-state-of-the-art building now looks like an ancient ruin. (What's left has been turned into a museum in Philadelphia). Here are some photos of how it looks now, plus a few shots taken in its heyday. (Listen to the story at the top of this post for more details, or listen to the full Morality episode.)

The imposing facade of Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1920s
Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1920s

The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary was built to intimidate. Its cold-sweat-inducing Gothic facade was meant, as its Board of Commissioners put it in 1822, to "convey to the mind the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.”

But inside was a different story. Instead of a gloomy dungeon, visitors were startled by its church-like beauty. 

Center hub of Eastern State Penitentiary
Center hub of Eastern State Penitentiary

With soaring ceilings and over 1,000 skylights, Eastern State's airy architecture grew out of equally lofty ideals. Architect John Haviland created a setting meant at every turn to drive a spiritual transformation. He imagined "a forced monastery, a machine for reform," as Eastern State's website puts it.

Cellblock 5 at Eastern State Penitentiary
Cellblock 5 at Eastern State Penitentiary, Elena Bouvier, 1998
Cellblock 9 at Eastern State Penitentiary

But prisoners weren't exalting in all this space. Underpinning the logic of the entire operation was one key tenant: solitude.

... the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.¹ 

This meant that inmates did their time at Eastern State in solitary confinement, very rarely leaving their cells. Not even for meals. Their food was delivered by carts that ran on tracks through the barrel-vaulted corridors.

A food cart at Eastern State Penitentiary
A food cart at Eastern State Penitentiary, Elena Bouvier, 1998

And even if an inmate was fortunate enough to get a break from his cell, it probably wasn't much relief:

The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells.²
Hooded Inmate
Hooded Inmate, Collection of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, gift of the family of John D. Shearer.

The hoods also enforced a policy of anonymity -- so no inmate would ever see the face of another inmate.

Each prisoner's world was a high-ceilinged rectangle lit by a slit of a sky -- a narrow opening in the solid rock known as an "Eye of God" window.

Light from an 'Eye of God' window at Eastern State Penitentiary
Light from an "Eye of God" window, Michael Cevoli, 2005

Here's what the cells would have looked like in their prime (in the 1830s):

Restored Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Restored Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, Tom Berault, 2001

In case this strikes you as bare bones, consider this: every cell had central heat and a flush toilet. This was cutting-edge comfort. The White House didn't get running water, or its first "bathing house," until 1833. 

But in spite of its relative luxury and its founders' good intentions, Eastern State came under criticism as an inherently cruel place, sparking debates about solitary confinement. And by 1913, the "Philadelphia System" forged at Eastern State was officially discontinued. 

For more images and history, head to, where you can also plan a trip to the penitentiary.

And one last photo for fun...  

Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Capone's cell, Tom Berault
A peek inside Al Capone's cell at Eastern State:

"Scarface" Al Capone, "the notorious king of Chicago's racket world," got his first taste of prison life in Philadelphia. While the courts were tough on Capone, his stay at Eastern State Penitentiary was rather comfortable. Capone spent 8 months in one of Eastern State's "Park Avenue" cells. In 1929, a newspaper reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger described Capone's cell.

"The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk... On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish."³


1-2 quoted from History of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

3 Capone Cell 


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Comments [8]

Pamela Sue from Minnesota

And then there was Mandela.

Jul. 16 2016 04:02 PM
Paul Howell from Paso Robles, CA

I often hear about how tortuous solitary confinement is to people. Political prisoners or inmates being punished for bad behavior often talk about how much they suffer in solitary confinement, even if only for a week or a month. Nobody ever talks about the possibility of the benefits of solitary and silent confinement (not this prison model).

As a Buddhist practitioner, I relish solitary retreats. The Buddha gave precise and detailed instructions in how to use silent seclusion to ultimate advantage. I recently retreated in a Catholic hermitage in Big Sur California where the hermitage was designed so that total silence and total non-contact would be maintained for extended periods, perhaps years. There are monasteries where Catholic monks take a vow of total isolation for life, never again making contact with other humans. (personally, I don't see any benefit to this).

One of the biggest problems with this penitentiary model is total isolation without equipping a person to handle it skillfully and help to move towards inner change. And having isolation thrust upon a person against your their will could be extremely difficult, particularly when they do not know or fully understand how to make skillful use of that situation. This prison's implementation of sustained, total isolation is a terrible idea. Even the Buddha forbade his disciples total isolation, requiring them to go out each day to get food for themselves so that they had contact with others.

I would find it interesting to compare brain scans of people who choose isolation and silence to those who have it imposed against their wills.

Jun. 13 2016 05:32 PM
scott stryish from united kingdom

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Apr. 26 2016 12:02 PM
Richard from Illinois

Edith is correct about sensory deprivation (sd). While sd was initially touted as 'mind-liberating' in the early psychedelic era, sd was found to cause hallucinations and great anxiety. Rollo May once noted that, 'if you give someone infinite freedom, you give them great anxiety.' I would like to know more about Larry's reference to the "Quaker-based penitentiary system in China." The Friends have a long history of doing prison visits.

Sep. 01 2014 03:39 PM

Contrast to today's prisons which are filled with noise and screaming day and night. I know isolation like Pelican bay's SHU makes people mentally ill, however the opposite side of the spectrum - NOISE - is a brain drainer os a different sort.

Jul. 19 2014 06:46 PM
Larry Robinson from Arlington, VA

I've got an interesting footnote to this story. In China in the 1980s, I got to know the Warden of Shanghai Number One Prison, which is located in what used to be the American Concession and I understand was modeled after Eastern State and run on the "Philadelphia system." As the first western-style prison in China, it in turn became the model for the entire national system. And the Quaker-based penitentiary system in China (not the local detention facilities or reform-through-labor camps) actually works. There's a stress on rehabilitation that has almost disappeared from American penal institutions, and the recividism rate is about a tenth that of the US. RadioLab: Please feel free to contact me for further details if you're interested.

Jul. 14 2014 05:23 PM

How did Al Capone get such luxuries in prison? Was it bribery or were you allowed to be sent things if you behaved?

Jul. 11 2014 07:42 PM
Edith from Tinton Falls, NJ

I saw that prison a number of years ago, an example of unintended consequences. We now know that sensory deprivation drives us crazy and is cruel and unusual punishment. Solitary confinement should only be used for brief periods otherwise we make a bad situation worse.

Jul. 10 2014 09:40 PM

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