The Eye of God Looks Upon You: Eastern State Penitentiary & The Failure of Solitary Confinement

In three of the four Gospels of the New Testament, the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus are but bit players. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark portray them as impertinent and ignorant men who readily echoed the derisive jabs aimed at Christ by the priests, scribes and elders present at the crucifixion, taunting the supposed savior who was unable to even save himself, while the Gospel of John barely even mentions that the two men were there at all. But, in the Gospel of Luke, these two common thieves are given voice to speak. After they had marched up the side of Calvary and were nailed to their crosses, the thief to Christ’s left started to parrot the taunts of the crowd and chastised him for not doing anything to save them all from crucifixion. However, the thief to Christ’s right quickly rebuked the first thief, asking him whether he feared God as the two of them were being justly condemned to death for his misdeeds while Christ suffered for crimes he did not commit. The thief on the right, also known as “The Good Thief” or “The Penitent Thief”, then turned to Jesus and asked him to remember him when he reached his kingdom, to which Jesus responded, “Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

And, thus, we had the first saint in history of the Catholic Church. The Good Thief was never officially canonized by the Church itself, but when the Son of God himself tells you that you’ve achieved eternal salvation, you’re pretty well in the clear. It would be another 400 years or so until The Good Thief was actually given the apocryphal name of Dismas(1) in the Gospel of Nicodemus, a name which comes from the Ancient Greek word for dying or sunset. During the Middle Ages, Dismas became known as the patron saint of prisoners and thieves and, to this day, his name is used by numerous prison ministries and charitable organizations. Although his transformation and repentance happened in the midst of what we would consider to be a barbaric public execution, the essence of his repentance and salvation was the driving force behind the modern prison movement in the United States.

A depiction of St. Dismas on the cross by the Flemish painter Robert Campin

Despite what their ubiquity in 21st century America might suggest, the modern day prison is a fairly new concept and one which sprang from the well-intentioned Christian charity of the Quakers in early 19th century Pennsylvania. Up until the 1800s, the fate that befell Dismas and Jesus was the standard in the Western world, even if the specific technique of crucifixion was not. The idea of incarcerating criminals for long periods of time has been a more or less foreign concept for most of recorded history. From the days of Hammurabi through the Enlightenment, justice was almost always meted out through corporal punishments rather than carceral ones. The purpose of these punishments was not so much to reform the criminals themselves, but to hoist them up in front of the rest of society as a grisly example of what happens when you break the law. After all, it’s pretty difficult to reform someone’s character after you’ve had them hanged or burned at the stake.

By the start of the Revolutionary War, serious questions were beginning to be raised about the viability and humanity of both capital and corporal punishment, especially concerning what were considered to be lesser crimes. At the time, Great Britain had expanded what would come to be known as its “bloody code” to absurd lengths, outlining 220 separate crimes for which people could be sentenced to death, most of which concerned themselves with protecting the property of the wealthy and suppressing civil liberties. Among the more ridiculous offenses considered worthy for the gallows treatment in 18th century England were the counterfeiting of tax stamps, the cutting down trees, theft of more than five shillings-worth of goods from a shop(2), and the robbery of a rabbit warren. In 1764, the Italian  philosopher Cesare Beccaria unofficially founded the discipline of penology with his publication of the treatise, On Crimes and Punishments. One of the first major critiques to be made of the death penalty, On Crimes and Punishments served as a seminal text in early penal reform, challenging both the utility and the morality of capital punishment. It was a work very much grounded in the Enlightenment, appealing both to sound logic inherent in making punishments proportional to the crimes they’re meant to correct and to man’s basic right to liberty. Channeling Montesquieu, Beccaria asserts that, “every act of authority of one man over another, for which there is not an absolute necessity, is tyrannical”

Owing to the vast regional differences that had formed in the various colonies over the preceding 170 years, there was no standard system of justice in America when the republic was first forming. Despite the conception of colonial justice many of us have involving some Hester Prynne figure being subjected to draconian Puritan punishments, the justice system in the New World wasn’t nearly as wretched as its British antecedents. The propensity for dishing out the death penalty depended largely on which part of the country you lived in, with places in the South like Virginia and the Carolinas being more similar to English law in the severity and manner of sentencing, while the more overtly religious colonies in the North, like Puritan Massachusetts and Quaker Pennsylvania, being much less likely to enact capital punishments, while placing great emphasis on regulating moral crimes, such as adultery and public masturbation.

It was in this environment of Enlightenment based reform that Dr. Benjamin Rush emerged as America’s first, and most influential, opponent of public criminal punishment. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was the preeminent medical mind in America at the time of its founding, although he has proven in hindsight to be a jack of all trades, master of none sort who advocated treatments in physical medicine, psychiatry and penology that mostly ended up harming his patients more than they helped them. For instance, Rush—who is considered by many to be the father of American psychiatry—thought the best way to treat insanity was through a vigorous regimen of solitary confinement, bloodletting, purging with mercurous chloride and the use of a centrifugal spinning board to increase the blood flow to the brain. You know, because when I see a mentally disturbed person, my first instinct is to get them in a room with nothing but their crazed thoughts to keep them company, give them a good bleeding, put a bunch of poisonous metals in their food and spin them around and around on a giant rotating board.

Dr. Benjamin Rush called this invention the “Tranquilizer Chair.” I don’t know about you, but I feel tranquil just looking at it.

Anyhow, in 1787, Rush gave a speech to a small group of luminaries assembled at Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home in, that was titled, An Enquiry Into The Effects of Public Punishments Upon Criminals and Upon Society, which was not so much against torture as it was against torture in front of lots of people. Rush makes clear that he’s not some pacifist Nancy looking to the give criminals a soft shake(3), telling his audience, “Let it not be supposed, from any thing that has been said, that I wish to abolish punishments. Far from it—I wish only to change the place and manner of inflicting them”. It was Rush’s belief that punishing criminals by placing them in the stocks or the pillory actually created more crime than it deterred, andhe urged his fellows to create a house of repentance that, in retrospect, sounds more horrifying than any corporal punishment that you could dream up:

“Let a large house of a construction agreeable to its design be erected in a remote part of the state. Let the avenue to this house be rendered difficult and gloomy by mountains or morasses. Let its doors be of iron; and let the grating occasioned by opening and shutting them, be increased by an echo from a neighbouring mountain that shall extend and continue a sound that shall deeply pierce the soul. Let a guard constantly attend at a gate that shall lead to this place of punishment to prevent strangers from entering it. Let all the officers of the house be strictly forbidden ever to discover any signs of mirth, or even levity, in the presence of the criminals. To increase the horror of this abode of discipline and misery, let it be called by some name that shall import its design.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather suffer any kind of bodily punishment than spend a few years in the soul-piercing hell castle Rush proposed. I don’t care if you give me 40 lashes, brand me, put me in the stocks, cut off one of my hands…just so long as you don’t cart me off to live in some moribund penitentiary that makes the House of Usher look like a Holiday Inn. In retrospect, I honestly don’t know what’s scarier: the fact that penal reformers like Benjamin Rush actually thought this new fear-based system of sensory deprivation and isolation was more humane than public punishment, or the unavoidable truth that America’s current prison system is an even greater affront to humanity.


Less than a mile from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the famed steps that Sly Stallone bounded up in Rocky, sits the Eastern State Penitentiary. Erected in 1829 as part of a massive public works project—the largest in American history up to that point—Eastern would prove to be the criminal justice’s equivalent of The Manhattan Project; a well-meaning enterprise intended to ameliorate the suffering of mankind that ended up giving birth to previously unimaginable devastation. Eastern State Penitentiary was the end result of decades of lobbying by the influential Quaker population in Philadelphia for a more just and Christian method of dealing with society’s criminal element, advocating the reform and transformation of the troubled souls in their care through what can only be described as absolute isolation.

From the time they entered the prison to the time the left it, the inmates at Eastern were kept in complete isolation from their peers and, as much as possible, from members of the prison staff. Built by the British Neo-Classical architect John Haviland, Eastern State Penitentiary was built as a modified version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design, which was originally conceived as a circular structure with a centrally located tower from which any one prison guard could keep watch on all of the inmates, all of the time. In laying out Eastern State Penitentiary, Haviland changed the basic structure of the prison from a circular to a radial design, with seven separate wings branching out of a central hub like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Each one of the wings was constructed to have thirty-eight twelve by eight foot cells, each of which with its own adjoining eighteen foot exercise yard. The doors to the cells, which had unusually small frames, were equipped with feeding trays for slipping inmates their meals with as little human contact as possible that are pretty much identical in design to those used in modern day solitary confinement cells.

The primary purpose of all this isolation was to cut the inmate off from the supposedly maleficent influences that led them to a life of crime and turn their thoughts inwards so that they could become sufficiently penitent for their misdeeds and commune with God in an effort to reform their ways of thinking. To this end, solitude is used as a weapon against the prisoner. At first, no stimulus is provided to the inmate, inducing in him that peculiar brand of despondent madness that comes from being left alone with nothing but one’s own thoughts. Then, when he is near the breaking point and desperate for something to occupy his time and stave off insanity, he is presented with a Bible and is given all manner of tedious, yet productive work to do within the confines of his cell, presenting the criminal with the option of being either industrious or crazy. Unfortunately for the Quakers’ well-meaning designs, it turned out that there is no amount of industriousness and piety that can keep most people from complete psychic collapse when they’re denied human contact for years on end.

The annual reports from Eastern State’s prison warden, physician and religious advisors paint a picture of subdued optimism for the moral and spiritual development of their wards, acknowledging that they can not reach all of these men, but that a great many of them show signs of improvement and have taken readily to the work provided them, having, “performed their labour with cheerfulness and assiduity.” At its outset, the prison was considered a tremendous success, with physician Edward Hartshorne declaring after fifteen years of operation that the isolation of inmates had a “comparatively harmless influence” on their mental and physical healthxvi. Unfortunately, these opinions had more than their fair share of experimenter bias and bore little resemblance to reality, as time and observations from the outside world would soon bare out.

A drawing of Eastern State Penitentiary that shows the facility’s unique, radial design

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary as part of a tour that would later turn into his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation. At the time, being the largest public works project in American history and the first truly reform-minded penitentiary on the planet, Eastern State was a frequent destination for visitors, both foreign and domestic. Alexander de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont spent a considerable amount of time at Eastern State during their tour of the United States a decade earlier and were so impressed by the prison that they felt it appropriate to declare that all foreigners who had visited the prison for the purpose of culling information for their own countries had,“with one voice, awarded the meed of merit to that established in the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania.” Dickens, on the other hand wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic.

When he took a tour of the prison and spoke to some of the inmates about their experiences there, he was horrified by the treatment that they were receiving. In American Notes, his assessment of the prison’s mode of reforming its charges ran contrary to those of Beaumont, Tocqueville and the Eastern State staff, writing that, “very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful [solitary] punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers.” In speaking to the inmates at Eastern State, Dickens managed to see what those blinded by religious fervor or scientific detachment had overlooked. He acutely felt the elemental, subterranean pain that these men were forced to endure—pain that holds, “a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict on his fellow-creature.”  

The men and women Dickens met with were all various stages of mental and emotional decay. One man—who had served six years out of a nine year sentence for receiving stolen goods—was trying his best to lose himself in the small contrivances and baubles that he could find for himself in his 12′ x 8′ world. On the walls, he had drawn crude paintings with color he’d extracted from yarn and he took great pride in a rudimentary little Dutch Clock he had managed to construct out of a vinegar bottle and bits of prison-yard detritus. But, as soon as mention was made of his wife—whom he had not been permitted to so much as look upon for six interminable, coffee-spoon measured years—his lip began to tremble and he threw his head into his hands, inconsolable in every respect, but able to give the proper answer when a guard asked if he was resigned to his fate, the Pavlovian call and response of a man bereft of life but for his stubbornly functioning organs. And, he was one of the more adjusted ones. Dickens met one man who had served 11 years in Eastern that was incapable of saying a word and responded to any and all queries by looking down at the ground and slowly picking at his bloodied and pockmarked hands. Perhaps saddest of all was the German immigrant who had spent the past 2 years exquisitely decorating his meticulously ordered cell with gorgeous colors and ornaments who broke down into tears in front of Dickens, grabbing at the lapels of a staff member’s coat and pleading with him to commute his sentence.

In the end, Dickens came away from the experience convinced that the mental and emotional torture of solitary confinement and complete isolation were far worse than any physical pain you could inflict on a person. He acknowledged that the Quakers were inflicting these punishments out of genuine philanthropy and a desire to reform the minds and hearts of the criminals given over to their custody, but was insistent that these desires were woefully misguided and dangerous—a verdict that modern psychiatry has held to be true. In summing up his visit to Eastern State Penitentiary and his experience with the inmates there, Dickens wrote:

“On the haggard face of every man among these prisoners, the same expression sat. I know not what to liken it to. It had something of that strained attention which we see upon the faces of the blind and deaf, mingled with a kind of horror, as though they had all been secretly terrified. In every little chamber that I entered, and at every grate through which I looked, I seemed to see the same appalling countenance. It lives in my memory, with the fascination of a remarkable picture. Parade before my eyes, a hundred men, with one among them newly released from this solitary suffering, and I would point him out.”

It would take another 70 years, but eventually the state of Pennsylvania came to the realization that giving their prisoners the psychic equivalent of Chinese water torture probably wasn’t the best way to rehabilitate them and the Pennsylvania System of incarceration, as it came to be known, was officially scrapped in 1913. But even before then, the prison system that we know and loathe today was beginning to creep into Eastern’s nominally rehabilitative walls, as the curative properties of solitary labor were replaced with more profitable, factory style equipment. The new cellblocks that were built vaguely resembled the old ones architecturally, but many of them were intended to house 2 or 3 inmates at a time, with new solitary units built underground, this time for punishing prisoners rather than leading them towards redemption. The addition of a death row cellblock in the 1950s completed Eastern State’s transformation from Christian house of penitence to human holding-pen.


The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary is as arresting as it is horrifying. With its gothic architecture and weather worn, ivy covered stone walls stretching more than thirty feet skywards it looks like someone airlifted a medieval castle from the moors of Scotland and just dropped it in the middle of an otherwise quiet Philadelphia neighborhood. At the entrance of the building a massive iron portcullis greets visitors, menacingly poking its latticed grille out from underneath a pointed archway while a eighty foot tall bell tower looms in the near distance. Blessedly, the foundation that now owns and runs the penitentiary-cum-museum has befitted it with the bare minimum of modern decoration and, with the exception of a few signs, a ticket desk and very well camouflaged gift shop, the grounds have been left pretty much as they were when efforts to preserve the prison began in the early 1990s.

When I walked underneath the portcullis’s rusty spikes and into the tunnels that ran adjacent to the exterior walls, I felt an eerie familiarity with Eastern State, despite the fact that I’d never been there before. It was as if the prison’s DNA had already been transmuted into my consciousness through a thousand little pieces of cultural ephemera. In truth, I had been imagining my own conception of this prison in my mind’s eye ever since I was a child. It was and still is the lodestone of the gothic and the macabre in American popular culture, even if its name is less familiar to the 21st century tongue than Alcatraz or San Quentin. It was the blueprint upon which more than 300 hulking penitentiaries were constructed and—more importantly—it had a profound influence on the the most greatest writer of horror and mystery that America has ever produced: Edgar Allan Poe.

While most often associated with Baltimore, the city where he died under mysterious circumstances and still lays buried, Edgar Allan Poe was actually enough of a nomad that several cities can lay legitimate claims as being his home. For most of his adult life, Poe jumped back and forth from Baltimore, New York City, his childhood home of Richmond, VA and Philadelphia, where he lived from 1838 to 1844 and wrote much of his most critically acclaimed work. At the same time Poe was living in Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary was reaching the peak of its impromptu celebrity, with the whole world seemingly descending on the former US capitol to look at what was then the most expensive public building ever constructed—one that had central heating and indoor plumbing at a time when The White House didn’t have running water and heated itself with coal-burning stoves. Poe—whose residences were all within a couple miles of Eastern State’s front door—would have more than likely become swept up in what was then a penitentiary fury that had gripped Philadelphia and its exceedingly hard not to see parallels between the prison’s architecture and the stylized gothic design in Poe’s stories(4)

I can make no pretensions as to being some sort of Poe scholar and there are certainly entire wings of academia that have far more informed opinions on the matter than I do, but I find it to be a singular coincidence that Poe only began writing what would be considered his greatest tales of the grotesque and the horrifying after he moved into the shadow of Eastern State Penitentiary. It was during his stay in Philadelphia that Poe had his most prolific stretch as a writer,publishing the bulk of what would become his seminal text, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, in his six years there. The Black Cat – The Masque of the Red Death – The Pit and the Pendulum – The Tell-Tale Heart – The Premature Burial; they were all written with Eastern State looming in the author’s periphery. It has been suggested that Poe’s knowledge of the gothic architecture that would become so prominent in his work was taken second-hand from 18th century British novelists and contemporaneous travelogues, which is certainly true to some extent, but I can’t imagine how any author, much less a man like Poe, could choose to take inspiration from the pages of musty old romances when the most terrifying gothic building in the New World stood a half hour’s walk from his house.

130806_0049One of the cellblocks at Eastern State Penitentiary

Even if the architectural imprint of Eastern State Penitentiary cannot be seen with absolute clarity in Poe’s work, the dread terror and despondency that was daily manufactured within its walls was conveyed in earnest. How many times in Poe’s stories does our protagonist find himself trapped in a claustrophobic and immutable space, left only with the thoughts of his own mortality and the knowledge that he is helpless to fight back against it? Whether it be the drunk nobleman slowly sobering up to discover his entombment in the darkest recesses of some catacombs in The Cask of the Amontillado or a prisoner in the Spanish Inquisition awaking in a pitch black cell and having to discover the dimensions of the last place he will ever live in total darkness in The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe’s character’s are more often than not prisoner to something. Surely, a prospective prisoner being hauled before Eastern State Penitentiary in its day could have substituted the words of the narrator in The Fall of the House of Usher for his own when he looked back upon his arrival at his friend’s decrepit tarn-side mansion and said,

“I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white tree trunks of decayed trees-with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”


For two decades after the last inmate was transferred out of Eastern State’s gothic walls, the prison became fallow ground. Its cells lay bare, the halls outside of them crusting over with earth and grime while its antique pipes burst, roofs caved in and bits of stone crumbled recklessly off of load-bearing walls. The weeds and the grass in the exercise yard grew hip high, migrating indoors when there was no sunlight or space left for the others to take seed in, while dandelions and clover began sprouting up in the little cracks and crevices of the fissured concrete of the prison floors. For the most part, these little intrusions of nature still remain. The foundation that owns the property has done enough in the way of renovations to fix any glaring structural errors and patch over open rooftops and the like, but it has maintained much of its ruinous quality, and in doing so it has lost its power to terrorize and horrify.

There is nothing legitimately threatening about a ruin. Sure, it might have some of the campy horror of an episode of Tales From The Crypt, but the best it can do is evoke some sort of transitory fear. Unless you’re a child who is incapable of conceptualizing the fact that there are no such thing as ghosts, ghouls and boogeymen, a place like Eastern State will always be desirable fear and, therefore, not really a fear at all. All of the ivy growing along the prison’s walls and the shattered porcelain sinks in the cells are just testament to the fact that this place cannot hurt us anymore. It is an attraction now—a historically significant haunted house. The hideousness and the grotesqueries that once took place within those walls has simply been outsourced elsewhere, leaving behind the misguided altruism and spirituality upon which it was founded as talismans of a time when penitentiaries actually strove to elicit penitence. To this end, all of the original cells at Eastern State Penitentiary have a trapezoidal skylight cut into their roofs, enabling a a little slit of sunlight to come down from the heavens and illuminate each inmate’s 12′ x 8′ world. The Quakers who ran the prison called this light the “Eye of God,”and provided it to every man and woman that came through their doors in an attempt to cultivate a personal relationship between them and their creator. Today, the Eyes of God that are scattered throughout the prison create hundreds of little Caravaggio-esque dioramas, the sun’s rays illuminating each individual cell, seemingly beatifying their crumbling interiors with light from the heavens.

When I visited, I spent the better part of an afternoon at Eastern State, simply moving from to cell to cell to cell, craning my neck as far through the undersized door frames as I could to see how time and life had taken these rooms—all created alike in size, shape and function—and disassembled each one in its own unique way. Some of the cells still looked completely furnished, with rusted bed frames and steamer trunks and porcelain toilets still intact and in place, as if they still expected someone to come back and use them again. Other cells were bereft of human ornament, their floors caked in layers upon layers of stone shards and plaster slabs, the exposed brick of its walls giving them the feel of untended catacombs. But, the cells that I lingered longest at were those that, through some mundane miracle of nature, had begun to breed life within their walls, where it had no right to exist. Every so often, I would poke my head into one of the ancient cells and find all manner of root and branch pouring in through the outside walls, spreading their arms wide in the once occupied space they’d so suddenly been given. In one cell, a tree with a trunk as wide around as a telephone pole had managed to take root in the less than life-affirming ground of the prison floor and had grown to the point that it was now sticking up through the Eye of God, the perfect metaphor for the protestant ethic that created Eastern State in the first place.

And yet, the antique beauty of this place was always tempered by the knowledge that the particular brand of human suffering that once took place there is alive and well in the hundreds of Super-Maximum Security Prisons that litter the country today, with the major caveat that a motivation based on Christian redemption has been replaced with one that values punishment for punishment’s sake. When it was first constructed, Eastern State Penitentiary was designed to hold 256 prisoners in complete solitude.Today,the varied penological progeny of the prison built up on Cherry Hill keep 81,622 men and women in solitary confinement across the United States, by and large providing them with treatment that is in intent the very antithesis of what was provided to inmates at Eastern State. In one of his annual reports to the state legislature, the prison’s first warden, Samuel R. Wood, noted that the solitary confinement at Eastern was meant to unite severity and humanity, and explained that those staff which are charged with guarding a particular prisoner, “treat[] him with the kindness and compassion which are due to the unfortunate man, rather than the unnecessary and unfeeling harshness too frequently displayed towards the victims of folly, vice and crime.”

A look inside one of the deteriorating cells at Eastern. As you can see, the Eye of God has provided enough light for plant life to try and take root.

In contrast to this sentiment, modern day Supermax prisons, like the infamous Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, are about as compassionate and kind as a Cottonmouth snake. Unlike their Quaker predecessors, Pelican Bay’s SHUs were created, per the prison’s mission statement, as “a modern design for inmates who are difficult management cases, prison gang members, and violent maximum security inmates.” Rehabilitation…reformation…penitence…these words aren’t  exactly in Pelican Bay’s vocabulary. There aren’t going to be any spiritual advisors or members of the Society of Friends walking through the doors to hand these inmates some religious tracts and talk earnestly with them about the redemptive qualities of a personal relationship with their heavenly father any time soon. In fact, pretty much anything an inmate would want to do to better himself and improve his psychological and spiritual well-being is forbidden in places like Pelican Bay. That means no religious services, no twelve-step groups, no parenting classes, no job training, no GED classes, no nothing. All there is to do is sit in your cell for 23 hours every day and try not to have a nervous breakdown, a pretty tall orderconsidering the fact that the average stay for a prisoner in the SHU is 7.5 years and that there isn’t a single published study on the effects of solitary confinement in SHUs and Supermax prisons that fails to show negative psychological results for the incarcerated test subjects after more than 10 days of involuntary isolation.

Despite the immense psychological damage done to thousands of the unfortunate souls who passed through their doors and the stirring testimony of men like Charles Dickens as to the inherent inhumanity of solitary confinement, the enduring legacy of Eastern State Penitentiary for me is one of hope. It was created out of a genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of mankind and to end the barbaric and humiliating practice of public punishment. That it did not achieve the lofty goals set out by its founders is not nearly so important as the ideal that it strove to meet, namely because it is that ideal that has become a casualty of history. Today, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in America—a number that is slightly larger than the number of enslaved African-Americans living in the country when Eastern State first opened for business. Instead of sending offenders to prisons run by Friends and reverends, we sell them to for-profit prison companies who have no intrinsic interest in the well being of their clients beyond simply not being sued or shutdown. As of 2010, more than 128,000 men and women were being held in private prisons owned by corporate behemoths like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group who receive all their profits from the federal, state and local governments who contract with them, more often than not guaranteeing them inmate quotas that keep the cells full and the cash flowing.

In recent years, a new Halloween tradition has been established at Eastern State Penitentiary called Terror Behind the Walls, wherein the 11-acre prison is transformed into the world’s largest haunted house and Philadelphians pay their hard earned cash to have the ever-loving hell scared out of them. Basically, it’s like any other haunted house you’ve ever been to, but with the volume turned up to eleven. Terror Behind the Walls has your usual stable of decomposing zombies and hatchet wielding serial killers lunging out at you from out of the darkness, but the prison is the real star of the show. Eastern State goes to great length to play up its “haunted” vibe, advertising about how it’s been featured on all of these ghost-centric cable show and that it’s consistently ranked as one of the scariest places in the country, which is all well and good. Meanwhile, a 30 minute train ride away in the “administrative segregation unit” of New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, anywhere between 96 to 329 men sit alone in their cell as their souls and their sanity softly erode in response to a secret terror that they cannot name and we can never fully comprehend. Gothic architecture and ghoulish spirits be damned; a closed prison is never so haunted as one that’s still in operation.


(1) The name has also been spelled as Dysmas and, in Spanish and Portuguese, Dimas—as in San Dimas—the California town prominently featured in the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. For what it’s worth, the name of the unrepentant thief was given as Gestas.

(2) I couldn’t find a direct translation of what five shillings in 18th century Britain would be worth today, but I did come across a section of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, which was written in 1791 and has a brief description of a brewer and member of parliament named Henry Thrale, who apparently used to receive six shillings a week from his father for working in the brewery.

(3) In the speech, Rush states that the punishments given to inmates that this new facility should consist of, “Bodily pain, labour, watchfulness, solitude, and silence…joined with cleanliness and a simple diet.”

(4)  When Charles Dickens came to Philadelphia on his American tour, Poe sat down with him for two interviews sometime between March 5th and March 9th of 1842, which brackets the time Dickens made his now infamous visit to Eastern State Penitentiary. Again, it’s hard to believe the prison wasn’t a major focal point of conversation.

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  1. Incredible piece. It reminds me of some of the places children are sent to, especially here in the South. Americans tolerate a culture of rape, a world of rape, a society of rape. To do this, they must look the other way as they establish institutions or pay others to establish institutions that are in no uncertain terms institutions of rape. Where rape is a way of life and seen as just punishment for crimes committed. The guards will rape you. The inmates will rape you. The body searches rape you. And these are just the detention centers juveniles are condemned to live in. Before they are turned over one way or the other to the adult system which begins the cycle all over again. How many times can a person be raped and not lose themselves. What rape abrogates is the self. More than the asshole. One loses one’s self to institutional rape, while the prison system and the society at large will tell you: it doesn’t happen. It does happen. It is condoned and institutionalized. I wonder to what extent rape was used as punishment in the past. I deal with boys who have been raped their entire lives. The walls they build around their selves and their second selves become employed as internalizations than the self can hide in even as the rape is occurring that allow the boy to continue living (for a while anyway) because he can convince himself it is happening to someone else. Disassociation makes for a survival mechanism. It is, however, not too functional once the prisoner is no longer incarcerated. Once he’s no longer incarcerated, the chances are pretty good that the disassociation is so painful, he simply kills himself. In clinical psychiatric setting, my job was to “talk” the suicidal down. Suicide is just another painful paradigm we attempt to legislate and punish people for. Today, I tell them they have every right to kill themselves if that is what they want. Many do. Can’t say I blame them. Their biggest fear is becoming incarcerated again. Being nailed to a cross would be torture. But it would end soon enough. Death is not a sin. It can be merciful. The cyclical nature of who gets the full brunt of the law thrown at them time and time again seems to indicate that as far as education is concerned, what people learn is their place as cannon fodder.

  2. It is unfortunate that you did not put the same level of research into Pelican Bay State Prison that you did with the rest of this article. If you had, you would have learned that there are religious, educational and rehabilitative programs at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay.

    SHU inmates can and do visit with their friends and family every weekend, just like all inmates. They also routinely visit with their attorneys in confidential settings during the week.

    SHU inmates visit the law library, which is open five days a week. They get mail, publications and packages.

    Contrary to what you wrote, SHU inmates have access to educational programs. The Voluntary Education Program includes adult basic education, general education development and college correspondence courses. SHU inmates can earn and have earned Associate of Arts and/or Bachelor of Arts degrees. Assessments, mid-term tests and final exams are administered in the visiting areas of the SHU and proctored by credentialed teachers. And they have access to rehabilitation programs.

    All SHU inmates have access to books in the SHU library.

    Nearly all SHU inmates have personal radios and televisions in their cells. They have 23 cable channels including ESPN.

    SHU inmates communicate with one another frequently and talk to each other. Many have cell mates.

    All SHU inmates, like all state prison inmates, have access to medical, dental and mental health services.

    If you’d like more information, visit You can also call the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Press Office at (916) 445-4950. You may also call the Press Office to arrange for a tour of Pelican Bay State Prison and its SHU. Thank you.

  3. I wil admit Ms. Thornton, you are certainly earning your keep as the California Dept of Corrections & Rehabilitaton’s spokesperson and you have left me with a very difficult dilemma. Do I choose to believe:

    Amnesty International:


    Democracy Now!:


    Mother Jones:

    The San Francisco Chronicle:

    The Nation:

    New York Magazine:

    along with tens of prisoners rights organizations and thousands of former and current inmates…


    Do I believe you…the Deputy Press Secretary for the CDCR.

    Let’s just say I’ll get back to you on that one.

    • Everything that Terry Thornton said in her post is accurate – and a lot of what is in the pieces that you cite is not. But you don’t need to believe me or Terry, or any of the authors of the articles that you read. You can learn best from personal experience. As Terry said, you’re welcome to visit Pelican Bay State Prison for yourself. Contact us when/if you are interested.

      Jeffrey Callison
      CDCR Press Secretary

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