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Eastern State Penitentiary

Sam Peckinpah →

Benjamin Franklin. This was necessitated by the poor at the Walnut Street Jail which was located behind Independence hall where delegates met. At Walnut Street Jail, the prisoners were mixed together; women and men, young and old and hardened criminals with petty offenders. This encouraged other evils such as rape, robbery and fighting. The conditions in the prison were also poor and dirty while prison guards and the prisoners colluded in bringing in alcohol. Corruption thrived and services never came for free; food, clothing and heating came at a price. More often the prisoners died out of poor health occasioned by the poor conditions in the prison notably cold, starvation and unhygienic conditions. Pennsylvania prison was designed with an intentional of correcting these anomalies. This paper is going to critically examine the Eastern State Penitentiary system of correcting prisoners. The paper finds out that while the system was a great improvement what anything that was before then, it nevertheless had inherent weaknesses that would eventually make it unsustainable.

The Eastern State penitentiary reflects the mind of Philadelphians then and the vision of the founding fathers. From the beginning, Philadelphia was meant to be a different society. Its founder William Pen was a Quaker and his Quaker values were manifest in the way the colony was run during his lifetime. The Quakers avoided meting harsh punishment on prisoners like it was the norm in the rest of Northern America (Dolan 7). Death among the Quakers was the punishment for murder only. Penn instead treated prisoners more humanly utilizing them for labor and fining others for their crimes. Upon Penn’s death, the values he upheld were shed away and prisoners in Pennsylvania received the same treatment as others elsewhere in the British North America. It is these severe conditions that the meeting at Franklin’s house was looking for a way of changing.

The Pennsylvania system was the brainchild of Benjamin Rush a Philadelphia scientist who had the privilege of travelling widely in Europe and of mixing with Europeans scholars of that day ( McShane & Williams 285). Rush and Franklin proposed a complete overhaul not only to the Jail at Walnut street but world over. His view of crime was that it was a moral disease and that being so a house of repentance was needed where the prisoners would be offered an opportunity to meditate on their ill behavior, experience a conviction and condemnation for their crime and desire of their own volition to change their behavior. The prison was therefore a place of rehabilitation other than punishment. This method was named Pennsylvania System and the institution a penitentiary.

The system was first implemented in Walnut Street Jail where inmates were separated according to gender and crime. In addition, the victims were offered vocational training during their stay in prison to utilize their idle time. Being that the population of Philadelphia was growing in leaps and bounds, Walnut Street prison was not enough to implement the idea as envisioned. A bigger and better penitentiary was needed for the said system to be implemented. Eastern State Penitentiary construction began in earnest in 1822 on a cherry orchard in the outskirts of Philadelphia. The penitentiary was designed by John Haviland, a British-born architect. It was not like any other design that existed before (McShane & Williams 285). The building consisted of seven cell blocks that radiated from a central hub. When it opened in 1829, it was a technological marvel. Its facilities were unrivalled even by the White House; it had a central heating system, shower baths and a flush toilet in each private cell. A misnomer however was that the septic pipes run parallel to the water pipes and when the boilers heated the water, it also by default heated the pipes filling the whole building with a foul smell.

The doors to the cell were narrow perhaps to make escape hard and short so that the prisoner would have to bow when entering the cell which was interpreted as a way of learning humility and bowing unto God. Each cell was lighted by a small window in the ceiling also known as “the Eye of God” that was supposed to be a constant reminder to the prisoners that God was constantly watching them. The prison was also in many ways designed like a grand gothic cathedral with great vaulted ceilings, skylights in the aisles, and grand arched walkways. This is because the penitentiary was supposed to be a place of repentance and reflection as opposed to punishment. According to Nesbitt, Wilson and Wiggins (25), “the Quakers hoped that solitude would induce the inmates to think better of their ways and grow closer to God.”

When the prisoner was checked in, he was physically examined and his details would be entered in a book. Such details consisted of information such as the general physical condition of the prisoner, any unique body marks and in some cases even the length of their feet. The prisoner would then be issued with an identification number before being led to the cell while covered with a hood to make sure the prisoner does not know where he is being led to (Nesbitt, Wilson and Wiggins 128). The inmates would never get a chance of interacting with each other. The person was equated to her number and from then he would work, eat, sleep, and spend all her jail term in that small cell. The prisoner therefore lived in total isolation and their circumstances were appalling. They were not supposed to make any sound and all they had in their disposal was a bible to read. Mental illness was a major problem since the silence and isolation weighed down the prisoners.

Charles Dickens was the earliest critic deploring it for mental torture. The system became untenable and was eventually dropped in 1913 in favor of a more integrated system where prisoners would be free to associate with each other and undertake some chores together. Solitude was identified not as a redemptive measure but rather a punishment.

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