Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary / Part # 2

Eastern State Penitentiary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
PART # 2 

 Eastern State Penitentiary
(Outside Walls / Fairmount Street)
In 17th Century America, prison's were institutions for punishment based on the tradition handed down from Europe.  William Penn did not approve and developed some of the most lenient guidelines in the American Colonies that would comply with his Quaker beliefs and future vision for Pennsylvania.  Years after Penn's death, a group of Philadelphia's leading citizens, many of whom were Quakers, met to discuss a proposal for a revised prison system.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, who created the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, spoke at the meeting to promote the use of solitary confinement as a means to rehabilitate prisoners.  It was decided to convert a section of the Walnut Street Jail into sixteen individual cells for the solitary confinement method as an experiment.  The group pressed the Pennsylvania State Legislature to build a new prison institution that would incorporate their vision of rehabilitation through individual spiritual reflection and discovery.

Central Guard Observation Tower
Thirty-four years later, the Pennsylvania State Legislature finally conceded and appropriated the funds to build a new state of the art prison facility based on the solitary confinement method of rehabilitation.  Upon completion, Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the largest and most expensive building projects in the United States.  It was also the worlds first true penitentiary, with rehabilitation the goal, rather than just punishment.  It was based on Quaker principals of self examination, and meditation as a means of repenting for their crimes.  Faced alone in the quiet of a cell, each prisoner would have no choice but to confront the reality of what they had done and begin the process of self healing, repenting for their sins against society.  The small skylight in each cell was designed to represent the Light of God, reinforcing the Quaker belief of the Inner Light, the light of God that existed within all people.  In time, the wagon wheel architectural design of Eastern State Penitentiary would become the model for some 300 newly constructed prisons around the world.

 Cell Block - A / Center Causeway
I had never heard of the prison before but stumbled across it in tourism booklet I had sent away for to see what other tourist attractions I might visit in and around Philadelphia.  A friend of mine had been there years ago and so we put together a little field trip with a few of my teaching colleagues for a tour of the prison and a few other sites around the city.  The prison is located just behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  We drove down a few city streets lined with row homes and suddenly came upon the intimidating 30 foot stone walls of the prison, which stood directly in front of our car.  It was an ominous sight, a dark Medieval presence of an old abandoned castle, misplaced in the middle of modern day Philadelphia.  The structure was enormous and consumed the entire city block.  We walked around to the front gate and descended down a short flight of stairs to the tour entrance, picking up individual audio gear for the self guided walking tour of the facility.  Please press "1" on your hand-held device to begin the tour...

 Cleaned Up Cell Interior
I had never taken a self guided audio tour before and was curious how it would work out.  It turned out to be really easy to navigate and you could go at your own pace taking breaks along the way to explore on your own.  After you completed the regular tour route, there were dozens of other locations marked by signs throughout the prison where you could enter a two-digit number on your device to learn more about individuals or events.  The building was eerie and dark from the start with the atmosphere matching the weight of the subject matter.  The prison closed for good in the early 70's and we were all amazed by the level of decay that had taken place over the past four decades.  The walls were literally crumbling to the cell floors, which collected the plaster dust that was falling away, exposing the original stonework.  The site's mission today is to stop the decay at its present state and preserve the prison as it appears today.  A few areas have been partially restored but there is no planned effort to restore the institution completely.  The decay factor has become the star of the show.

Aerial View / Eastern State
 (Photo Credit / Google Earth Images)
Eastern State Penitentiary is a place full of contrasts.  The outside castle-like exterior was designed to intimidate the outsider, a stern warning that this was not a place you wanted to witness from inside the stone walls.  The inside was designed to resemble a church with tall arched ceilings to aid the condemned toward penance. Which, was really pointless since the early prisoners never saw anything outside the walls of their own individual cells.  From the time it was first built, Eastern State became an instant tourist destination.  Visitors from Philadelphia flocked to see one of the most expensive building projects in the country, an institution on the cutting edge of criminal science.  The world beyond was also watching and visitors came from the far reaches across Europe to see the great wonder in person.  The prison took advantage by charging admission for short tours and by 1854, over 10,000 visitors were passing through the front gate every year.  Even the great social reformer Charles Dickens crossed the Atlantic to give his opinion.  He wasn't impressed, calling the system inhumane and cruel beyond comprehension.

 View of Two Story Cell Block
The practice of solitary confinement at Eastern State became known as the Pennsylvania System and was praised by some and condemned by many others.  The process of isolating prisoners was intended to prohibit them from being a bad influence on one another.  Eliminating contact with all criminal temptation would force inmates to confront the actions of their crimes that resulted in their incarceration.  People supporting the theory of prolonged isolation, argued the process would further lead to self rehabilitation through personal reflection, which would have a positive impact on their moral character.  The evidence of their full transformation would be witnessed in their future behavior in the outside world, on the other side of the gate.  By coincidence, The New York System prison concept was conceived about the same time and became the competitive ideology of the Pennsylvania System.  The New York System design also had prisoners living in private individual cells but inmates ate meals, exercised, and learned trades with other condemned men in large common areas.  In effect, they would learn to work with others, eventually becoming a contributing member of society.  So goes the theory...

 Corner Guard Tower / Zoomed Image
As time passed, outside critics voiced claims that the extreme isolation inside Eastern State was causing cases of mental illness and depression among the prisoners.  Rather than having a positive impact on their state of mind, the solitary environment was causing more harm than good.  The institution began to get more and more new inmates and needed to continuously expand.  The prison model began to cause financial stress with every inmate needing their own private cell and exercise yard.  The New York System continued to progress because it was more cost effective than the Pennsylvania System and could handle larger numbers of inmates.  Soon Eastern State was forced to face the issues all prisons struggle to manage to the present day... overcrowded living conditions and underfunded budgets.  The isolation system became impossible to maintain and Eastern State was forced to slowly evolve to resemble the New York version of the penitentiary concept.

 Prison Door / Entrance to the Yard
As time passed, Eastern State's inmates began to interact with one another more in newly created open spaces within the walls.  Baseball was played on a field created within the center yard and cell blocks competed with one another in organized leagues.  Educators were hired to teach illiterate inmates to read and write, while others could learn a trade such as shoe making, which they could use when released to support themselves.  Serving time at Eastern State became more bearable for inmates but more challenging for the guard staff.  Isolation had prevented outbreaks of fights, gang activities, the use of contraband items, escape attempts, and prison riots.  All became common place with the socialization of the prisoners in common spaces.  Over 140 prisoners escaped from Eastern State during the prison's operating years but only one was never recaptured.  One man had made it as far away as Hawaii but most were caught within a few hours in the city of Philadelphia. 

 Al Capone / Prison File Content
The two most famous inmates at Eastern State were bank robber Slick Willie Sutton and notorious Chicago gangster mob boss Al Capone.  In 1929 Capone received his first prison sentence for having a concealed weapon without a permit and was sentenced to a year in prison.  His cell at Eastern State was not within the regular population cell block but existed in a semi-private area located directly across from the prison barber shop.  No one can say how or why it happened but Capone's cell was outfitted with carpet, fine furniture, artwork on the walls, and a radio to keep him up with current events.  Without doubt, Capone's accommodations were the most comfortable of any inmate who ever served out a sentence at Eastern State.  In his eighth month of his year long sentence, he was paroled for good behavior and over 500 people lined the streets to witness his departure.  The warden however, wanted to avoid the pending media circus and secretly had him transferred to another facility a few days before his scheduled release.  He quietly reentered society without notice. 

Al Capone's Semi-Restored Cell
The tour was truly fascinating and unique, unlike any historic site I had ever toured before.  The site was closed in early 1971 following a large prison riot and the prisoners were soon transferred to other prison facilities.  Eastern State stood empty and abandoned for the next twenty years.  With the prison's close proximity to the Art Museum, the city purchased the property for $400,000 in 1980 with the intention of redeveloping the land for commercial purposes.  For eight years not much happened and Eastern State continued a rapid process of decay.  In 1988 a group of historians and preservationists urged the city to make the site a historic landmark and open the facility to public tours.  Funding was raised to stabilize the structure to prevent further decay and the effort began making the property safe for group tours.  One of the most successful fund raising events is the annual Halloween themed tour.  The event is now called Terror Behind the Walls and is a very popular attraction throughout the fall season, raising funds to help preserve the site.

Closed Cell Block / Ghost Cat Sculpture
I couldn't imagine touring the facility by candle light at night, especially with people jumping out of the shadows to scare you... can you say heart attack?  Eastern State is considered one of the most haunted places in America and has been featured on shows such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and MTV's Fear.  The Hollywood film Twelve Monkeys, (starring Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Madaline Stowe) filmed a mental hospital scene for the movie here in 1995.  One of the interesting items that caught everyone's attention during the tour route was the multiple white sculptures of individual cats.  During the years when the prison stood empty and began to decay, the building became home to a colony of wild cats.  Volunteers cared for the cats on site until the last one died.  Their former residency is documented in the Ghost Cat Sculptures that can be discovered throughout the prison and grounds.  There are a total of thirty-six cats that can be found, kind of like a Where's Waldo of Eastern State Penitentiary.  Happy hunting!

A Tree Grows in Eastern State
The prison was damp and smelled of mildew in certain places.  Plaster dust filled the floor of many cells and nature began to reclaim the space.  Several cells actually had trees growing up through them fed by water and light that filtered through the open skylight.  Another perfect example in the real world of what happens when we abandon man-made structures as detailed in the Discovery Channel series entitled Life After People.  How long before the walls would fall and the land would be reclaimed by the green of the forest.  Eastern State Penitentiary is an incredible place to visit, something you don't come across everyday.  I highly recommend it next time you are in the neighborhood of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmount Park.

 Prison Yard / Baseball Backstop
Did you know... 
  • The organization Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded by Dr. Benjamin Rush, still exists today and is now known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society.  The head office, which oversees forty-three chapters within the state, is still located in center city Philadelphia.  The group continues the mission of aiding prisoners and their family members. 
  • When Eastern State was first built in 1829, it was one of the most advanced buildings in the world with indoor pluming, running water, and a centralized heating system.  The prisoners enjoyed these comforts within their individual prison cells which President Andrew Jackson had yet to experience in the White House.
Please See Additional Photographs at....


Eastern State Penitentiary / Part #1

Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 1930
(215) 236-3300

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