Day 35: Philadelphia & the Prisons of Yesteryear

When he visited The Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote down about the prison’s style of solitary confinement in his American Notes, saying:

“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Keep in mind, that this is arguably Great Britain’s most prominent, or at least prolific, documenter of squalor and poverty, and he thinks that solitary confinement is the most inhumane form of punishment he has come across. To be fair, Dickens did note that the Quakers who formed Eastern State Penitentiary had good, although misguided intentions in the construction and execution of what would come to be known as The Pennsylvania Style of prison management. The same cannot be said for prison wardens, correctional officers, legislators and judges who are currently responsible for the over 80,000 men and women being held in solitary confinement today.

With that being said, and with much more to come on this subject in the book, here are some pictures I took today inside Eastern State Penitentiary:



A view of one of the wings of Eastern State Penitentiary. The building, designed by John Haviland in the 1820s, was at the time of its construction the biggest and costliest public structure in the country. It was the first to utilize Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” a theoretical structure in which all prisoner’s cells were built in wings that branched off from a central hub, allowing guards to maintain a constant eye on all areas of the prison.


This is a typical, unrestored, cell. All of the cells in Eastern State were 8′ x 12′ x 10′, with hot water tap, toilet, bed and perhaps a table.


Another view of a less well-kept cell. The light you see coming from the top of the picture is natural sunlight, which is coming through a small slit that was known as The Eye of God. That was the prisoner’s only exposure to the outside world, with the exception of the 1 hour a day he was allowed to use his exercise cell, an adjoining cell that was same size as his living cell, but with an open roof.


This is by far my favorite photo. During the two decades immediately after Eastern State’s closing in 1970, no one so much as touched the property, allowing trees and overgrowth to flourish outside, and occasionally inside the prison.


A ground view of the central watch tower at the prison.


Here is the old medical wing of the prison. Even prison health care is better than no health care at all.


This was an installation done in one of the prison’s cells. What you’re seeing is an exact reproduction of an individual cell at Guantanamo’s recently defunct Camp X-Ray. The facilities our military uses to hold detainees in Gitmo are so small that they fit inside of a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, which was first constructed in 1829. Ah, the smell of progress.

Categories: Photo Diaries

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1 reply

  1. Wish you were at 45th Parallel – vs that hell hole! Soon!

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