Updated: Aug 6
Dakota Cameron '25, John Jay High School
Tara Prakash '25, Sidwell Friends School
Eastern State Penitentiary located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was opened in 1829 and closed as a prison in 1971. It is now a museum open to the public where visitors can take a journey through the history of America’s criminal justice system and the modern day prison.
Before Eastern State, there was no distinction between jail and prison, with whatever containment being unsupervised and punishments carried out by fellow prisoners. Eastern State Penitentiary was founded out of a will to change this and address crime in the relatively new United States. Its founders were interested in a solitary confinement approach, originally placing prisoners in individual cells 23 hours a day with the remaining time spent exercising or performing other tasks. The rooms were dark, maybe containing a single skylight, and while the prison was fitted with plumbing and electricity very early on, the stone structure maintained temperatures significantly cooler than outside in the winter, and warmer in the summer. Prisoners were instructed to be silent and still preserved in the Penitentiary today are pipes and holes in walls where officers would monitor sound levels to prevent any communication or derivation from solitary confinement.
As time progressed, the solitary confinement approach was abandoned, and today research regards this punishment as potentially destructive to mental health and overall health of prisoners. Additionally, as the population grew and grew the approach was no longer feasible and alternatives were sought out. Prisoners were given work to do which they were paid for and able to use the money to buy amenities for themselves and their cells during their stays in the prison. Eastern State also has records of the meals and sustenance offered for prisoners which were seemingly of good quality especially for the time. Through the years Eastern State maintained the congregate system, becoming high security and keeping in service until its closure in the 1970s. It was the first of its kind in terms of the facility and the practices, and is an important reminder of the history of crime and punishment in the US.
However, while crime rates have fluctuated up and down over the last few decades, the incarceration rate has shot up. Prisoners are receiving longer sentences for crimes that would have received much shorter sentences and less severe punishment in the 1960s. More people (specifically African American and Hispanic communities) are being sent to jail now because prosecutors want to keep their incarceration rate high.
Even the architecture of the penitentiary encourages an isolated and watchful nature. For example, the penitentiary is structured with five extending cell block hallways from a center room. Standing in that center room of the penitentiary, the guards can turn slowly and see down every cell block from their one position in that space, maintaining a watchful eye on all incarcerated persons in each cell. And while the Eastern State penitentiary claimed they weren’t segregated, they conveniently placed the cells for Black prisoners closer to the kitchens and sanitation areas, so the guards could then make the Black incarcerated persons do the chores and cleaning. The architecture also used angles and slants to make prisoners feel isolated and alone, in an effort to encourage these prisoners to spend this time self-reflecting to become a better person.
By observing these models, we can further understand the experiences incarcerated persons undergo in prison to then support them through poetry and creative writing. Write to Right is committed to empowering incarcerated persons with the resources and tools to express and transform themselves.