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What is the Eastern State Penitentiary?

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  • Written By: Brenda Scott
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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The Eastern State Penitentiary was a unique prison built in the 19th century in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was constructed using a revolutionary design by John Haviland that featured cell blocks radiating out from a central rotunda like spokes on a wheel; an arrangement that was copied by hundreds of prisons. When it opened for business in 1829, it was the largest and most expensive building in America.

The creation of the Eastern State Penitentiary was a result of decades of campaigning by a prison reform group known as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. This organization was formed in 1787 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician who offered free medical treatment to the poor. Jails at that time were brutal places where prisoners were stripped, beaten, extorted for every humane service, and allowed to starve to death if they had no means to pay for food. Appalled by this corruption and brutality, society members, including such people as Benjamin Franklin, urged radical reform.

The society was greatly influenced by Quakers who believed that solitude and work would allow criminals to confront their consciences, repent and find God. In 1821 the Pennsylvania Legislature approved funding of the new prison, which began the next year. In 1829 the state adopted a prison policy which required absolute silence and solitary confinement, an approach which became known as the Pennsylvania System. That year the prison received its first inmate.

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While much of the corruption and brutal treatment was abolished, the reformers appeared unaware of the intense psychological torture created by silent, solitary confinement. Prisoners were isolated in dark rooms with only a small skylight. They were allowed to exercise outside alone for one hour per day. Their food was pushed through a hole in the door and they were forbidden any communication. Black hoods were placed over their heads whenever they left their cells to prevent any communication with another human.

The code of silence was strictly enforced by the guards at the Eastern State Penitentiary and infractions resulted in harsh punishments. Disobedient inmates were doused with ice water and hung on an outside wall overnight. If infractions continued they could be left without food and water for days, tied to a chair with tight leather straps that prevented any movement. This punishment became known as the mad chair because of the number of inmates who went insane while so confined. Prisoners were also punished by being locked for weeks at a time in a dark pit.

The harshest treatment was reserved for prisoners who, desperate for human contact, repeatedly broke the rules forbidding communication. The prisoner’s wrists were chained together behind his back, and then the chain was connected to an iron gag which was attached to his tongue. If he attempted to move, the gag would pull his tongue, causing intense bleeding. Records indicate that at least one prisoner bled to death at a result of this treatment.

In time, the Pennsylvania System was dropped and inmates were allowed to work, communicate and eat together. During the 1930s, riots broke out in response to overcrowding and poor conditions. After the largest prison riot to date occurred at the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1961, the Pennsylvania penal system began to move inmates to newer facilities. The aging buildings were in such disrepair it was closed permanently in 1971.

Although the Eastern State Penitentiary was declared a national historic site, it stood derelict for several years. In 1980 the city purchased the building and over the next decade worked with various charities to restore portions of the facility. Several areas have been repaired, and an art gallery has opened in one of the old cell blocks. The prison is open daily for public tours.

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