Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a place of edifices, of great architecture domestic and imperial in scale, from “Second Empire” to neo-classical of the grandest style.   It’s also a place of quotations; the place is littered with sayings by Benjamin Franklin, inventor, revolutionary, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, coiner of meaningful admonitions.

Franklin was also one of the reformers behind the Eastern State Penitentiary.   My hosts, newly arrived in the city, recommended the prison as one of the foremost sights in the city.  I had visions of turning up and asking the warders for permission, being escorted nervously inside, as I was a couple of decades ago when I went to visit Rikers’ Island.    I’ve also spent time inside (visiting) two prisons in California.

But the Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum and historic site, and one of most absorbing I’ve ever encountered: simple, uncluttered, uncrowded (on a sunny December day) and expertly but unobtrusively presented; illuminating, thoroughly thought-provoking.

Just by some of Philadelphia’s prettiest central streets, and an easy 15 minute stroll from the extraordinary  modern Greek acropolis of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the penitentiary looms like a Victorian gothic castle, the forbidding, gloomy ramparts spreading across an entire city block.


Eastern State Penitentiary prison

Eastern State Penitentiary

The arched windows on the exterior are false.   There is solid wall behind them.

I wasn’t the first visitor. As he prepared for the tour that would produce American Notes, Charles Dickens spoke of two places he wanted to visit in America: Niagara Falls, and Eastern State Penitentiary.     He first came to the city in 1842, aged 30.   His pet raven Grip ended up in the Philadelphia Free Library and there’s a rare statue of Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park.

If I remember my Dickens lore correctly at the height of the serialisation of the Old Curiosity Shop, arriving  British ships would be greeted in American ports by fans desperate for news of Little Nell’s health.   When I first saw the statue in the distance, walking an unruly dog, it looked like some inappropriately patrician sculpture of a supplicating young woman.

Charles Dickens Clark Park

Dickens and Little Nell

This is what greets you when you enter the prison gates.    Breath-taking.

Cell blocks Eastern State Penitentiary Philadelphia

Cell blocks in a star pattern

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829.  Eight cell blocks were designed as spokes coming out from a central hub.  It was built on the philosophy that prisoners would become truly “penitent” through completely solitary confinement – which was construed not as a punishment, but as an opportunity for profound reflection.

The cells had arched ceilings like cells.   They had doors leading out on to separate yards at the back, for an hour of fresh air a day;  prisoners were forbidden to communicate with fellow inmates, and were brought into their cells with hoods over their heads so they could not even see them.   The cells initially had no front doors – merely hatchways for meals to be pushed through.

Peering into these ruined cells – only one or two have been restored – you imagine what may have been left behind in the debris, if there is anything still to pick through.

Dickens believed this “Pennsylvania system” could drive an inmate insane through isolation.  “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote.

Charles Dickens Eastern State Penitentiary

Dickens’ vision

The rival New York system where inmates were allowed to mingle became more popular in the United States,  but 300 prisons on five continents were modelled after Eastern State.   The system was finally abandoned in 1911, when prisoners were permitted to meet and talk.   By 1940 ESP was a maximum security prison and finally closed in 1969; after decades, the abandoned site was saved from development and slowly stabilised.    It has been subtly unrestored.

Eastern State in its heyday was a bigger tourist attraction than Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.    It it is an uncomfortable attraction for Trump’s America, against the history of Guantanamo Bay.

The excellent audio tour os narrated by Steve Buscemi.  It guides your footsteps as carefully as any prison guard.

A second floor was added to the cell-blocks later.  A highlight is the extraordinary view of the cells from the raised walk-way.

Al Capone had his tonsils out in Eastern State.   When you’ve wound your way through the prison, head the stories, seen the photographs, the war memorial – another weird curiosity, with just a single death on it – you reach an exhibition focussed on US incarceration, exploring our own responses to crime.  There is a  film that quietly  juxtaposes the hawkish promises of politicians of right and left since the 1980s against a soaring prison population.  Clinton was to blame no less than Bush, it appears, and for all the contemporary expressions of regret, and promises of change, there’s little sign of a real reduction.

Outside it is a sculptured graph showing just those figures.  It’s a place to be wary of the best intentions, and easy promises.

The rising incarceration rate.

And more horrific statistics,  in black and white.