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Revolutionary Confinement

May 2023
1min read

Eastern State Penitentiary Crucible of Good Intentions

by Norman Johnston, with Kenneth Finkel and Jeffrey A. Cohen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 116 pages .

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary began in 1821 as a revolutionary experiment in prison reform and ended in the 1970s as a dangerously crowded relic. When it first opened, it was the most influential prison in the country, holding 250 prisoners in solitary confinement under a house regimen of enforced individual reflection and religious instruction—a far cry from the harsh British corporal punishments of nonetoo-distant memory. Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1831, was intrigued by it; Charles Dickens, visiting ten years later, was not: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body. . . .”

In the long run the prison’s design proved more influential than its methods. Within its Gothic fortress walls, a huband-spoke layout allowed each prisoner a small exercise yard. Over the next century its radial plan was copied all over the world. But by 1900 the slightly enlarged Eastern State was squeezing nearly twelve hundred prisoners into 760 cells, and enforced solitude had given way to the massive crowding of the modern prison. The Eastern State Penitentiary was made a landmark in 1965, and this intriguing, illustrated account of its controversial history makes the case for the prison’s full restoration. The book accompanied an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1994.

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