The Fraught and Frightful History of Eastern State Penitentiary

By Nova BarelaLast Updated May 27, 2021 4:30:25 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Juha Metsranta/Getty Images

Although it exists today merely as haunting ruins, long-abandoned guard towers and decrepit cellblocks that carry whispers of past cruelties, Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) was once one of the United States’ most preeminent prisons, an institution that represented a supposedly innovative new level of rehabilitation for incarcerated people when it first opened in 1829. During the nearly 150 years the facility was in operation, it developed a reputation for housing some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history — including gangster and racketeer Al Capone — but it also influenced the global approach to imprisonment in lasting ways that are still highly visible today. ESP was the first prison of its kind to enforce solitary confinement, a practice that’s now widely recognized as a form of psychological torture.

But how did this come to pass — how did ESP leave such a fraught legacy? Examining the history of this famous prison, from its origins to its design, tells a story rife with controversy that extends to the practices of the facility themselves.

The Concept of Complete Solitude Informed the Prison’s Approach to Reform

In the early days of U.S. history, the ways people were jailed were uncoordinated, unsanitary and unrelenting. According to Smithsonian Magazine — and specifically in reference to a facility called the Walnut Street Jail, which was located behind Independence Hall in Philadelphia — "Men and women, adults and children, thieves and murderers were jailed together in disease-ridden, dirty pens where rape and robbery were common occurrences. Jailors made little effort to protect the prisoners from each other. Instead, they sold the prisoners alcohol... Food, heat, and clothing came at a price. It wasn't unusual for prisoners to die from the cold or starvation."

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Photo Courtesy: The Washington Post/YouTube

Concerned over the inhumane treatment these people were receiving, a group calling itself the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons began demanding change at a structural level. In the late 1700s, people like Benjamin Franklin and a physician named Dr. Benjamin Rush began to take notice, and they started working to reshape the prison system by incorporating their religious views — specifically that people would benefit from privately repenting, meditating on their crimes and experiencing "spiritual remorse" as a form of rehabilitation. These ideas are the origin of ESP’s most contentious legacy: the concept of solitary confinement.

Early changes implemented at Walnut Street initially appeared to have positive effects. Workshops were constructed where inmates could learn and practice vocational skills while occupying their time, and the cruelty directed toward inmates was largely abolished. However, Philadelphia’s population was growing quickly, and with that came a growth in the crime rate. As more people were imprisoned, Walnut Street leaders noted that it was impossible for inmates to fully receive the isolation and reflective solitude that were believed to be essential for repentance. A complete overhaul of the overcrowded, communal-style facilities came to fruition with the design of ESP: Each inmate would receive their own cell.

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Initially, the prison was able to lock each of several hundred inmates in their own 8-foot by 12-foot cell, which had a toilet, running water, shower, skylight, private exercise yard and central heating. Of course, Bibles were also present. The inmates were required to spend most of their time contemplating their wrongdoing and rarely socialized with each other; by some accounts, they weren’t allowed to make eye contact when they occasionally encountered each other and were outfitted in hoods when taken out of their cells. The prison was dubbed Eastern State Penitentiary because of its focus on penitence — the act of showing remorse for sinning, which was done in complete seclusion.

Leaders from around the world found themselves fascinated by this revolution in prison design and inmate treatment, and more than 300 prisons across the globe would eventually be constructed with ESP as their model. However, several people dared to criticize the ways the prison was run, including Charles Dickens. He wrote, in reference to the nature of solitary imprisonment, "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." This "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain" that was standard at ESP ultimately created a perfect storm of conditions in which torturous punishment could thrive.

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Shocking Abuses of Authority Became Common

Administrators at ESP advocated for "maximum solitude," which we now call solitary confinement, and this resulted in increasingly cruel treatment of and punishments for inmates. The abuse of power prevailed in ESP at the hands of staff members who had little oversight and their own ideas about forms of psychological torture they would (and did) impose on the inmates. The staff enacted punishment on prisoners using several methods, which included:

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Photo Courtesy: The Washington Post/YouTube


  • Ice baths: During winter, inmates were drenched in water and left outside, chained to a wall, until ice formed on their skin.
  • Restraining chairs: The inmates were left tied to chairs for days. The restraints were secured so tightly that their circulation was cut off, and the ties sometimes rendered the inmates permanently disabled or in need of amputation.
  • Iron gag: With the inmates’ hands tied behind their backs, guards forcefully inserted metal devices into their mouths, which caused the tissues in their tongues and cheeks to rip open.
  • The Hole: This was an underground cellblock where staff sequestered inmates without light or human contact and exacted further punishment against them. Guards withheld food and often turned up the cells’ radiators to create uncomfortably hot conditions for the inmates.
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Eventually, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, solitary confinement "ended up being a feared form of punishment, creating more issues than it solved." This system was abandoned in the early 1900s because it became too expensive and the continually growing inmate population became too large for the available space. But while ESP may have formally ended solitary confinement, the practice hasn’t disappeared completely from the American prison landscape.

Today, inmates are still subjected to solitary confinement — sometimes for years or decades — often as a disciplinary action and temporary or long-term punishment for rulebreaking or because their behavior consistently compromises the safety of other inmates and prison staff. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s right, and inhumane treatment of inmates remains a widespread issue. Organizations continue to point out harsh punishments and abuse of power by both staff and inmates who have interpersonal conflicts. As society works to fully realize the need for inmates to retain human rights and fundamental freedoms, it’s become increasingly clear that this type of treatment — the legacy of ESP — is unacceptable.

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Humane Treatment of Incarcerated People Matters

If there’s anything that ESP could teach the system, it's this: Spending time behind bars doesn’t mean a suspension of human rights is also necessary. It’s becoming more widely known that "widespread violations of the human rights of prisoners in the United States [are] associated with solitary confinement," and various groups are working to tackle the issue head-on. If you’re interested in taking an active part in affecting real change in the treatment of incarcerated people, consider supporting one of these agencies and organizations continuing the fight for inmate rights:

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Supporting inmate rights and educating ourselves on what truly goes on behind bars is an important step for us as individuals and as a society. ESP may have fundamentally shifted the ways prisons were run, but it’s past time for us to demand fundamental change to the ways incarcerated people are treated.