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On a recent visit to Philadelphia, after wandering around the Old City, chomping our way through a series of tasty meals and visiting the beautiful little Rodin museum, we thought it would be fun to check out — what else? — the local penitentiary.


The Eastern State Penitentiary isn’t just any old prison. When it opened in 1829, it was one of the most expensive buildings in the country, second in cost only to the White House. Unlike the White House, however, it was a technological marvel, with each prison cell supplied with running water, a toilet and central heat, all unknown at the time. Why did the inmates receive these benefits?


This penitentiary was built to carry out the radical new concept of prisoner rehabilitation. Based on the Quaker belief that all people are inherently good and that crime is a result of the environment, they theorized that if prisoners could be kept apart from one another while learning a trade, they could make new lives for themselves upon release. Instead of punishing criminals, as in prisons, the intent was to make the criminal feel remorse and penitent (hence the term penitentiary), to teach a trade, and most importantly, to keep each prisoner in isolation, away from the bad influences of others.


In effect, everyone was in solitary confinement. All contact between prisoners was forbidden. Each prisoner had his own cell with a skylight and a door to a tiny enclosed exercise yard. Feed doors allowed meal delivery. Hoods were placed over the inmates’ heads so they could not communicate with one another during rare trips outside their cells, and the plumbing pipes were installed outside of the cells to discourage communication through them. Letter writing and family visits were prohibited, although tourists could visit the facility.


We were allowed to enter one cell to experience its size, which was about 8 by 12 feet (2.4 by 3.6 meters), but dozens of cells were doorless, and I was able to photograph them. Each was in its own state of decay, some neatly swept, others in disarray, with rusted bed frames, dilapidated furniture and crumbling walls.

Although I love the layers and textures of decaying ruins, here this was overshadowed by the thought of the men and women who lived in these tiny spaces, deprived of almost all human contact. It was hard to think about spending a few days in such a small, dark space, let alone years. Imagine the despair felt by the prisoners as they were locked in, with a promise of no further companionship for the duration of their sentence.

The skylight, the only source of natural light, was high and small. It was meant to evoke the eye of God.

The first prisoners were petty thieves with sentences of one or two years, not hardened criminals. How did they adapt to solitary confinement? Not so well. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, he said, “I believe it, in its effects, is cruel and wrong.”

The penitentiary, build just outside of the city in an unusual spoke design, was considered a model of innovation. Guards in a central hub could look down each cell block to observe activity. More than 300 penitentiaries around the world were built based on its style.


This 1954 photo shows how the city grew around the penitentiary walls. You can see the additions built onto the original design. Some of the cells were stacked in the new additions, which meant that the top cells lacked exercise yards.


This cell block contained two-story cells.


The effects of solitary confinement are extreme. By studying prisoners and learning from those held as prisoners of war, we now know that human beings experience extended isolation as torture. We simply can’t maintain our mental health without human contact. Within months, brainwaves begin to slow down. One third of prisoners eventually suffer from acute psychosis with hallucinations. Others suffer from lethargy, depression, claustrophobia, compulsive pacing back and forth, panic attacks, extreme violence or become catatonic. Paradoxically, people who are this starved for companionship are often left psychologically unfit for social interaction.

In these cells, you can see the door that leads out to the little exercise yard. The doors were intentionally short, to force the prisoner to bow in penitence as he entered and exited his cell.



The cells with north facing skylights received little direct sun. A prisoner would have spent his sentence in what probably felt like a dimly lit hole, except for the one hour a day he spent in his yard.


This system of solitary confinement was officially abandoned in 1913, although it had broken down decades earlier, when the penitentiary was beyond capacity and was forced to double or triple up the prisoners in each cell. Eventually, the facility was converted to a modern system, with prisoners eating, exercising and working together in groups.

Because of the prison’s spoke design, inmates were hard to control, and riots broke out in the 1930’s and 40’s. In the 1950’s, hardened criminals joined the mix. These dangerous inmates now lived in the heart of a city neighborhood, next to a school and surrounded by homes. The state finally shut the prison down in 1970. It opened to the public as an historical site in 1988.


The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world; with 5% of the world’s population, it holds 25% of its prisoners, and most likely the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement. Solitary confinement has never been shown to reduce prisoner violence. The current American system is based on punishment, not rehabilitation.

In the 1980’s, Britain began to move away from this system, switching to one that promoted reintegration into society by reducing prisoner violence instead of relying on punishment. They gave their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. Prisoners were housed in small, stable groups, offered opportunities for work, education, social help and mental health treatment. The results were so impressive that Europe soon followed suit. Long-term isolation has now been almost eliminated in their prisons.


Despite similar recommendations made by analysts of the American prison system, the current system of punishment remains, held in place by politicians unwilling to appear soft on crime, and by public sentiment that does not believe another approach will work. As a result, solitary confinement in the U.S. has exploded.


I don’t know what the answer is. It’s hard to have compassion for murderers and violent criminals. At the same time, giving prisons the freedom to inflict psychological torture on all inmates, whether burglar or murderer, seems extreme, especially when we know that there are avenues to rehabilitation. Whatever the solution, it’s hard not to notice that we have travelled an awfully long way from the original objective of redemption and the belief that all people are inherently good.