Sunday Evening Photo Blogging: Eastern State Penitentiary

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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.

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12 Responses to “Sunday Evening Photo Blogging: Eastern State Penitentiary”

  1. #1 |  Monica | 

    Speaking of “getting right by God”

    147 cases in police lab mess called ‘tip of iceberg’

    Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says her office has identified 147 cases of convicted and imprisoned people that will require the retesting of evidence as part of the investigation into the now-closed Detroit police crime lab — unveiling the first of potentially thousands of cases that are at risk of unraveling because of mishandled evidence.

    “This is the tip of the iceberg,” Worthy told the Free Press on Thursday, noting that in addition to the 147 cases identified by her office, defense attorneys have notified her office of 30 others that they believe relied on mishandled evidence.Those cases, and thousands of others, are taxing the Michigan State Police’s capacity, which could translate into guilty people walking the streets, innocent people stuck behind bars and law-enforcement agencies hamstrung in fighting crime. Added to the caseload is the budgetary constraints under which the Prosecutor’s Office and State Police must function.

  2. #2 |  Mike H | 

    Beautiful pics, Radley. You’ve got a real knack for moody composition and highlighting dramatic ambience. Most of the stuff on Urban Exploration sites isn’t as good as this.

    Get any weird vibes while traipsing around?
    After all, the acronym for Eastern State Penitentiary is ESP….

  3. #3 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Interesting stuff, Radley. I learned about Eastern State and other aspects of early American corrections during my brief stint in grad school. The part about learning a trade was a good idea. Teaching skills and providing educational opportunities are among the best known ways to reduce recidivism. But nothing works for everyone, as Robert Martinson’s study concluded (The study was misinterpreted and became known as the “nothing works” study. Unfortunately, that provided fodder for the “tough on crime” movement). And yeah, isolation isn’t such a good idea. Segregation and sensory deprevation tends to drive people batty.

  4. #4 |  Jesse | 

    The Annual Reports of the Inspectors of the Eastern State Penitentiary for 1831-57 and 1924-29 are online here:,41

    If you see names of diseases you don’t recognize, I suggest not googling them. Ignorance is bliss.

  5. #5 |  Ben | 

    Hey — if this chasing down crooked/incompetent/overzealous cops, DAs and medical examiners things doesn’t work out, it looks like you’ve got a great fallback. Very nicely done.

  6. #6 |  Joseph | 

    I have mixed feelings about the isolation. On the one hand, prisoners do need social contact. On the other hand, violence in crowded prisions with more social interaction is so common it is taken for granted. If social interactions involve violence, they can be worse than isolation.

  7. #7 |  EdinTally | 

    Got a 6×8 walk in closet? Tell your s.o. to feed you through the bottom of the door and not talk to you for a month. Let us know how it turns out.

  8. #8 |  Noel St. John | 

    Great work, Radley. You’ve certainly mastered the “Rule of Thirds.” In many of these, the untrained or novice shooter would have placed the focal point in dead center. By shifting this, you lead the viewer’s eye into the image and provide a dramatic sense of perspective. Hats off.

  9. #9 |  Mrs. C | 

    You have a good eye for composition…beautiful pictures…great camera…impressive photography…

    Nice Job!

  10. #10 |  Dan | 

    kudos on the pictures. I love exploring old places like that.

    Each year they have a big to do on halloween, as if walking around that place at night isn’t scary enough.

    I was a little disappointed when we toured there – They made us sign a waiver yet still wouldn’t let us look through the most interesting parts of the prison (guard tower, kitchen, medical, etc), although I understand why.

  11. #11 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    Complete isolation from all human contact is a bad idea, but on the other hand so if having all the prisoners mingling around together. One of the big problems in modern prisons is that prisoners essentially need to join a gang in order to be safe from the other inmates, which prevents any meaningful reform from occur and in many cases turns petty criminals into hard core thugs. Perhaps there is some happy medium where prisoners are isolated from one another but allowed contact with non-criminals?

  12. #12 |  ChrisD | 

    They open that place near Halloween for a scary as hell haunted house open to the public. Really creepy.