So one of the sites we hit in our trip to Philly last month was Eastern State Penitentiary, a 180-year old prison that closed in the early 1970s. For much of its existence, Eastern State was the most famous, most copied prison in the world. It was started in part by Benjamin Franklin, and up until the middle-20th century took a Quakerish, redemptive approach to punishment. In an odd way, it was both more cruel and more hopeful than other prisons. Its purpose was to rehabilitate prisoners, but it did so by completely isolating them. Even those incarcerated for minor offenses had almost no contact with other human beings for the length of their stay. Not for meals, recreation, or fellowship. The one exception was to learn a trade (which each inmate was expected to do over the course of his sentence). But the purpose of the isolation wasn’t retribution, but rehabilitation. The thinking was that isolation was what it took for the convicted to get right with God–note the cathedral ceilings in several of the photos.
It’s not quite accurate to say the place is abandoned. A private preservation group has rehabilitated parts of the building and now runs tours through it. They also invite local artists to stage exhibits around the prison grounds. But the building’s slow, beautiful decay is part of the attraction, so the renovations mainly consist of making sure the tour-guided parts are safe to walk through, and that’s about it. Click the photo for a slide show.