Alexandra Swim
LEN 101
Eastern State Penitentiary Field Visit
On this day of Saturday, November 16th, we know we’ve arrived at the right place at this medieval castle seems very out of place. Our tour guide meets us right outside of the front gate and proceeds to tell us that when Eastern State Penitentiary was opened two miles outside downtown Philadelphia in 1829, it was built as a gothic fortress to deter crime. Architect John Haviland said of the building, “it should strike fear into the hearts of those who thought of committing a crime.” Before entering the prison, we learn the brief history of the beginning of Eastern State. In 1787, a group of powerful Philadelphians gathered with Ben Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was formed, and spoke to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania build a revolutionary new prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in a prisoner’s heart on farmland outside Philadelphia. Eastern abandoned corporal punishment and ill treatment, adopting a system of spiritual reflection and change while being punished. Inmates were hooded whenever outside of their cells to prevent any distraction, interaction, or knowledge of the prison. They were to focus only on thought of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes. This made Eastern State Penitentiary the most famous prison in the world.
The first stop we make as we walk into the prison is the front tower. This is where multiple guards were at all times to watch over the whole prison. From here, you can get a bird’s eye view of the whole 11-acre prison complex. The front tower housed the alarm bell and the only clock visible to prisoners when they were outside in their private exercise yards. Down from this main tower and to the left, we traveled up another set of tight stairs in the West Tower to a door under lock and key: the administration building office, also known as the Warden’s office. Between 1872 and 1885, the Warden had his office relocated to the main prison building between cell blocks 1 and 9. However, because of security concerns with the prisoners, the office had to be relocated back to the West Tower in the administration office building in 1923, where it stayed until the Penitentiary’s closing in 1970. Still untouched in the office lies the remains of many filing cabinets strewn around that once held the files of each of Eastern’s prisoners.
We have now finished our introduction to the penitentiary with the main gate, which means we are ready to move to the main prison building. As we leave the gate building, Haviland’s masterpiece is before us. Eastern was initially built to house 250 of the harshest criminals; the job was to create blocks where prisoners could be kept completely isolated from each other in surroundings not injurious to their health but secure from escape and easily accessible to constant inspection by guards. To carry out this revolutionary task in prison reform, Haviland chose to build Eastern State Penitentiary as a radial layout, with a central hub with seven wings converging on it and connecting to the center building by covered passageways. The center building served as an inspection hall for vantage point guards to view all corridors of the prison. The first three wings built were single story, each containing about forty cells each. Entry to these cells was not through the corridor, but through the private exercise yard connected to each cell. The remaining four cell blocks were two stories in height. Access to the cells was through double doors opening into the corridors. Each cell contained a toilet, water tap, a bunk on chains, and equipment for the prisoner’s work activities. The only light came from an 8-inch window in the ceiling. Eastern State Penitentiary had become the tangible symbol for the emerging system of solitary confinement through Haviland’s design.
The first stop we make in the main building of the penitentiary is the rotunda. This is the physical and symbolic center of the prison. Designed for maximum surveillance into all corridors, the idea was copied in hundreds of prisons throughout the 19th century, and provided a very powerful experience. To put yourself in the shoes of one