Jul 10, 2014

Shattering Silence and An Eye of God

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 easternstate.org, 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 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists