Nearly 185 years ago, several Philadelphia men took up residence in an imposing stone structure in Cherry Hill, a pastoral setting just two miles from the city center. There, they would spend an average of two or three years alone, in complete meditative silence. With only a bed and a Bible, each was expected to devote every waking hour to self-contemplation and his relationship with God.
But this was no monastery and these were not monks. They were the first prisoners admitted to the Eastern State Penitentiary, which began construction in 1821 and opened eight years later. Architect John Haviland was instructed to “convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.” With its 80-foot bell tower, 30-foot walls and 27-foot-tall iron-studded oak doors, the building resembled a massive fortress. The only larger building in the country at the time was the U.S. Capitol.
As foreboding as it was, Eastern State was designed from the beginning to implement new, more humane theories about crime and punishment. Presaging many of today’s arguments on corrections reform, the emphasis was much less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. Philadelphians, drawing on their Quaker roots, had long argued for better treatment of prisoners. They believed that if prisoners were left alone in complete silence, with nothing to occupy their minds but thoughts of their misdeeds, they would become genuinely penitent. (Hence, the building was known as a “penitentiary.”)
The place was utterly silent. Guards walked the halls with socks over their shoes. The wheels on the wagons that brought food down the long corridors were covered in leather. For 23 hours of every day, inmates were confined to a 7.5- by-12-foot cell with a church-like vaulted ceiling and small skylight. For the remaining hour they were allowed outside within their own small exercise area. Inmates in adjoining cells were never allowed outside at the same time, and any communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden.
In order to implement these new ideas in prison reform, Eastern State boasted a number of design innovations. Because each prisoner would never leave his cell, water for washing had to be brought to him and a flush toilet provided. (By comparison, running water didn’t make it into the White House until 1833.) A rudimentary system provided heat to each cell—something many Philadelphia residents couldn’t afford themselves.
But the design feature that got the most attention was the cellblocks. Seven wings radiated out from a central open rotunda, allowing one guard to oversee the entire prison from a single spot. Today more than 300 prisons worldwide have a similar design, directly attributable to Eastern State’s influence.
So famous was Philadelphia’s new penitentiary that it became a tourist attraction. Admission tickets were sold for regular tours of the facility. Along with sightseers, schoolchildren and occasional presidents, a young Charles Dickens spent a day at Cherry Hill in 1842. He was not persuaded that the prison was living up to its rehabilitative purpose, later writing, “In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing.”
Over the years, the population of Eastern State grew well beyond what it was intended for. New cellblocks and wings were jammed within and around the original seven spokes. Rules against working in groups were relaxed. As early as the 1860s, many cells held two men. Enforcing silence became difficult, if not impossible. As the prison population grew, so did the city of Philadelphia: Neighborhoods expanded to surround the prison that once stood alone on Cherry Hill. A school was built across the street. Locals became wary of having a prison in their backyards.
Meanwhile, ideas about corrections and rehabilitation were shifting. The practice of keeping inmates in isolation was increasingly considered cruel. In 1933, Warden Herbert Smith wrote: “We cannot reform men when we place them in dark and unhealthful cells, in an environment worse than the one from which they came.” A decade later Gov. Edward Martin called Eastern State “not fit for human habitation” and advocated its closure. In 1945 the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the abandonment of Eastern State, along with a total revamping of the state’s penal system. But it wasn’t until 1970 that the last prisoners left the Philadelphia jail. Today, Eastern State Penitentiary is again a destination for tourists, who may roam the long corridors and peer into the cells.
In the modern corrections system, solitary confinement is reserved for the nation’s most dangerous inmates. Still, tens of thousands of prisoners across the U.S. are currently held in isolation, according to the advocacy group Center for Constitutional Rights. At California’s notorious Pelican Bay supermax prison, for example, 1,500 inmates spend at least 22 hours alone every day in windowless cells. They are allowed five court-mandated hours per week—also alone—in exercise pens. The rest of the time, they wait by themselves, thinking about their crimes.