Happy 2013, everyone! With a new year and new beginnings, I thought I would write a post that goes back to the beginning: a post about the first penitentiary.

Prisons have been around for centuries. But the first penitentiary was built relatively recently. Prior to the modern prison system, prisons were disorderly mess houses, large rooms where inmates milled about waiting out sentences, spreading diseases, and being generally rowdy. In the early 19th century, the “Pennsylvania System” was introduced as a different school of penal philosophy, one that stressed solitude as a form of punishment. As a product of the Pennsylvania System, Eastern State Penitentiary, the first penitentiary, was constructed in rural Philadelphia in 1829.

A typical cell at ESP

A typical cell at ESP, circa 2008

Rather than being a traditional prison, the builders of ESP wanted inmates to embrace the principles of penitence and self-reflection (hence the term “penitentiary”). Every cell at ESP was designed to be an isolation cell, where the inmate would be held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. At the time of its opening, ESP was considered a technological marvel. Its unique “radial” structure was an innovation that predated modern security cameras, allowing guards in the central hub of the prison to keep close surveillance on inmates. Plumbing and heating were channeled into each cell so inmates had little excuse to leave their rooms. ESP was the original supermax.

Art installation by Michelle Handelman

Art installation by Michelle Handelman

The penitentiary was shut down in 1971 as a result of a prisoner riot. It was abandoned and, over the years, it fell into disrepair. But since 1994, ESP has been open to the public. Apart from Alcatraz in San Francisco, ESP is one of the few opportunities the public has to tour a prison. I went on a tour earlier this week and it is an awesome museum. The building itself is really creepy—peeling lead-based paint, rotting furniture, rusted bars. Admission price includes tours of the grounds with expert guides, an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi, and the chance to see installations by local artists in some of the abandoned cells.

In a way, ESP is a living metaphor for the carceral system: centuries old, crumbling, in need of a fix. While the practice of solitary confinement outlived ESP, we are at a point in history where supermaxes are beginning to shut down and solitary cells are emptying out. ESP, the first penitentiary, stands as a reminder of a failed experiment we are in the process of untangling ourselves from. Cheers to more progress in 2013.


A picture from my visit to ESP


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