Eastern State Penitentiary and the Punishment of Isolation in Nineteenth-Century Penal Imprisonment

Nowadays Eastern State Penitentiary is a famed historical museum that charts the prison’s working life (1829-1971) the experiences of prisoners. Today, although currently closed due to the Covid-19 crisis, it gives tours to hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit for an experience of nineteenth-century penal imprisonment, as well as to see its infamous cells that once held the likes of Chicago gangster Al Capone among an array of other ghostly figures and shadows. However, the foundation of Eastern State Penitentiary as an institution, along with those it inspired, represented a greater changing attitude of reform and enlightenment of the malleable mind of man and the importance of ‘penitence’ (which is why Eastern State is named a ‘Penitentiary’ rather than ‘Prison’) in silent, isolated personal reform.

The prison was constructed during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. During this time, social institutions such as prisons, primary education, hospitals, and transportation began to develop into what could be considered early inceptions of their modern form. The prison system, however, is one of the most durable of these, remaining largely the same since the nineteenth century to focus on the punishment and handling of the greatest and most serious offenders of the criminal code. Prisons, of course, had existed for much longer, but these new waves of intellectual reforms saw a change in the thought and rationale. Founded on the growing concern that if men and women were to be sentenced to several years imprisonment then some consideration had to go into how and where, leaving old customs to die out and a new moral philosophy on criminal activity to emerge. These ideas were discussed in Michel Foucault’s, Discipline and Punish, in which he argues that the “punishment of a less immediately physical kind” was taking a prominent view in the chastisement of offenders, to remove the element of torture in punishment and replace it with “a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display”.

The formation and design of Eastern State is an example of this change in ideas, moving from the “gloomy”, physically torturous prisons of the past, and instead creating a focus on the prisoner as more than just a body to be hurt, but rather a person to retribute and a mind to reform. Within this framework, unlike traditional punishment, blame is distributed differently with the conviction, trial, and sentence taking greater light, punishment falling to what Foucault argues is the “hidden part of the penal process” becoming dislodged from the public practice of punishment as a spectacle to merely a part of the legal and administrative process that took place upon the conviction of an offender. Eastern State represented these changing ideologies, and formed a physical, institutional basis for such philosophies to be carried out and architectural historians have praised its designs in mirroring changing attitudes of penal punishment with purpose-built structures aimed to provide for specific occupancies.

One of the most immediate ways in which Eastern State Penitentiary achieved this was through surveillance, with a specific aim to increase security and control without the need for extensive forces of guards. The prison was designed in a ‘spindle’ layout, with a central watchtower to house the guards. The corridors of these offshoot cell blocks were very thin, designed so that there would be limited congregation if inmates – on rare occasions – were able to leave their cells, only accompanied by guards. They also had the unique ability to allow guards to secure entire cell blocks despite severely limited numbers by simply glancing down each of the corridors to ensure that it remained quiet and peaceful. Similar trends spread across new waves of prison buildings, with other examples including Stateville Prison in Illinois – one of the purest examples of ‘rational’ design with a circular octagonal design, again allowing a small number of guards to always keep watch over a large number of prisoners as Foucault describes, acting as a strong seat of power within an “artificial city” that is both discreet and effective in maintaining control.

Stateville Prison, Illinois

However, these new wave prisons went beyond mere reforms for the sake of easy and efficient security to a new philosophical form of punishment and rehabilitation, stressing “the importance of reflective solitude as an engine for reform” and what emerged was a correctional theory that soon became known as the Pennsylvania System, based around the inception of Eastern State Penitentiary. The rationale behind this was that the cause of criminality and recurring offences was deemed the influence of others that occurred within the prisons themselves that could turn a small-time offender into a rampant betrayer of the state. French intellectuals, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, stated that upon their research into the emerging American penal system, published in 1833, the social isolation of every prisoner was the answer to this and the “best way to prevent their destructive influence on each other,” asserting that “Nothing, certainly, is more fatal to society than this course of mutual evil instruction in prisons”. The idea of social isolation as a means of punishment and rehabilitation focused on the idea of man (and mind) as a malleable concept, in conjunction with reforms to hospitals, asylums and schools, enforcing the principle of “embedding” or “encastrement” or as utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, describes “a way of obtaining power, power of mind over mind” created in a penal “mill for grinding rogues honest and idle men industrious” to fit social acceptability and move away from the criminal life.

These ideas were legalised through political support on the 23rd April 1829, which specified the “separate or solitary confinement at labour” and witnessed the formal creation of the Pennsylvania System. This was achieved through a series of architectural innovations that saw the prisoner isolated from the rest of the cohort, in private cells with an adjoining recreational area that would only be available to himself. Within each of these cells, an inmate would conduct all their daily activities, from sleeping to eating and resting. The only social interactions that an inmate would ever have would be with the guards, and even then, this was curtailed by feeding doors and the watchtower system, further extended through directions for guards to place woollen socks over their shoes to prevent inmates knowing where the guards were.

The inmates lived in complete silence and solitude intended to “deeply piece the soul”, force reflection, guilt and thought, bring them closer to God, and turn them into reformed people. Furthermore, the walls were created to be twenty inches thick, and pipes filled constantly with water to prevent communication between inmates. Dickens, upon his visit in 1842 described the sound of Eastern State as such:

Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but is stifled by the thick walls and the heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound.

The only sounds ever to be heard in the penitentiary were always under deep control, arising from the main bell of the central watchtower or the performance of sermons by local clergymen.

The inmates would only be provided with limited reading material to prevent total insanity and provide mental stimulation and often only included a copy of the Bible for religious reform. At the discretion of the warden and approval by the prison board of directors, further reading material could be issued but “the only voices that would resound in their minds [was to be] the voices of religious and moral authority.”

The prison’s design also included an education curriculum intended to ‘moralise’ prisoners and provide them with skills for after their release. It was split into three main aims: vocational skills, academic development, and moral intuition. These initiatives were focused on building literacy and quantitative skills, again allowing them to read the Bible and religious tracts, as well as methods for working in trades upon their release. Much of this was overseen by the moral instructor who described the programme in 1850 as “here, every man’s cell is not only his workshop but also his school room and study”. The aims of these curricular reforms were to allow inmates to overcome the poverty and economic security that they saw as a key cause of crime (although provided little support after release) and dispensed these services to all inmates.

Arbiters of the Pennsylvania System praised its efforts at reform, citing reports such as the Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of Inspectors (1863), which stated that Eastern State held a high success rate of only 4.65 per cent of inmates serving a second term, dropping to 0.45 and 0.08 per cent respectively for third and fourth terms. However, this is only a partially reliable source as it relied on inmates disclosing whether they had previously been incarcerated. Elsewhere, doubts began to rise about the effectiveness of the Pennsylvania System. Despite being emulated on an almost global scale, one key downfall of Eastern State was its cost. As one of the most expensive buildings in the United States at the time, costing around $780,000 (around $22million today), the Penitentiary was a huge drain on finances. Furthermore, it was only designed to hold 250 inmates but eventually would become overcrowded due to its price. It did undergo several developments in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, including the building of four new cell blocks in 1877 with an eventual total of 12 by 1911. However, in 1913, the Pennsylvania System was officially abandoned by Eastern State due to its inefficiency and breakdown several decades earlier.

Further building continued on Eastern State, despite the removal of all female prisoners in 1923, with a second three-story cellblock (Cellblock 14) built in 1926, allowing for a total number of 1,700 inmates in a prison designed to secure 250. In the early 1930s, during the time when famed gangster Al Capone was held at Eastern State, tensions began to rise amongst inmates over the issue of overcrowding, with riots and fires set by prisoners occurring in both 1933 and 1934. Eventually, the Pennsylvania Legislature recommended in 1945 that the Penitentiary be abandoned after a high-profile escape of twelve men but it would not be until January 1970 that the site was officially closed, before being totally abandoned to vandals and urban forestry in the mid-1980s.

One key feature of Eastern State Penitentiary that has endured beyond its deregulation, is its reputation. It stands as one of the oldest remaining examples of nineteenth-century philosophy and intellectualism towards prison economy and social value, acting as not only a model on an international scale but as a symbol of the reform actions that exist in criminal justice systems even today. However, Eastern State also represents for many a dark and oppressive regime, one that saw the mental torture and anguish of hundreds of Eastern inmates “worse than any torture of the body.” Dickens gave his opinions of such techniques in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony that this dreadful punishment prolonged for years, inflict upon the sufferer

This is also perhaps why Eastern State, and its institutional descendants have gained an almost mythological notoriety as places of pain and maltreatment in local ideas and folklore. With such institutions becoming infamous for the ghosts of the inmates they once housed they will now forever do so.

Written by Melissa Kane


Całkowska, Karolina. “American penitentiary systems at the beginning of the 19th century through the eyes of European intellectuals.” CRIMEN 9, no. 3 (2018): 303–320.

Easternstate.org. “About Eastern State.” 2021. Accessed on 7 March, 2021. www.easternstate.org/about-eastern-state.

Easternstate.org. “Timeline”. 2021. Accessed on 7 March, 2021. www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Kahan, Paul. Seminary of Virtue: The ideology and Practice of Inmate Reform at Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829–1971. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009.

Kass, Lily. “Penitence, External and Internal Sound at the Eastern State Penitentiary: 1830-1850.” International Journal of Listening 33, no. 3 (2019): 133–137.

O’Donnell, Ian. “The aims of imprisonment.” In Handbook on Prisons, edited by Yvonne Jewkes, Ben Crewe, and Jamie Bennett, 39-53. London: Routledge, 2016.

Statistics, Bureau, and Consumer Index. “$780,000 In 1836 → 2021 | Inflation Calculator”. Officialdata.Org. 2021. Accessed on 7 March, 2021. www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1836?amount=780000.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: