The World’s First Modern Prison



The World’s First Modern Prison

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Fairmount, Philadelphia – Eastern State Penitentiary was conceived in 1787, in the living room of Benjamin Franklin, a leading member of the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The reformist group was appalled by conditions at the recently opened Walnut Street Jail, located behind Independence Hall, where guards sold liquor to inmates and often made women available. The reformers believed that a policy of strict solitary confinement would better encourage spiritual development.

In 1790, the society convinced Pennsylvania’s legislature to pass a series of prison reforms, including the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison opened in 1826. Inmates were isolated to their cells nearly 24 hours each day, eating, working and recreating alone. Visitors weren’t allowed and the only reading material provided was a Bible. But rather than induce the spiritual awakening for which the prison was designed, Eastern State Penitentiary instead became an incubator for psychosis.

The prison was America’s first major public works project and almost instantly became an attraction for tourists, like Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville. Dickens in particular was abhorred by what he saw, writing, “I am persuaded that those who designed this system… do not know what it is they are doing… I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Guards meted out arbitrary punishments like taking naked inmates outside during winter and dousing them with cold water. Some had their tongues chained to their wrist in a way that struggling would cause the tongue to tear.

By the early 20th Century, the policy of extreme isolation fell out of disfavor and the prison for the first time allowed inmates to work, eat and recreate together.

But it was the prison’s architecture more than the philosophy behind it that led more than 300 prisons worldwide to be modeled after it. The revolutionary hub-and-spoke design originally featured seven single-story cell blocks radiating out from a center octagonal-shaped tower. The prison was the first public building in America to have central heating, flush toilets and shower baths. However, it was the only prison in America to follow this design.

By the mid-20th Century, the compound was in shambles and, in 1971, was shuttered. For nearly 20 years the prison was left to rot before a group in the late 1980s successfully petitioned a Philadelphia mayor to spare the site from redevelopment. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1994.

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