Eastern State, built in the 1820's, was the world's first 'penitentiary." It last housed prisoners in 1970 and is now a decaying tourist attraction. It is one of only seven American sites on the World Monuments Fund's list of 100 most endangered cultural heritage sites. Today, for a $7 admission fee, you can take a guided tour of the penitentiary, which is what Ms. Dobrzynski did.
The tour guide narrates a history of Eastern State. It was built at a time when Quakers repudiated the then-contemporary punishment model of corrections in favor of isolation, reflection and work. The penitentiary represented a dramatic shift from the punishment model to one wherein criminals were to be "reformed" in solitude.
Ms. Dobrzynski describes one of the refurbished cells: "At 8 by 12 feet, it is roomier than today's prison cells with space for a bed, stool, workbench, desk (plus a bible) and toilet. The walls are whitewashed, antiseptically so, and there's a small skylight, circular in some cells to signify the eye of God. Opposite the entrance is another door, which leads to an outdoor exercise cell of equal size that could be visited for two scheduled hours a day."
The penitentiary's strictly enforced solitude was intended to prevent the spread of criminality while providing for reflection and penitence. "It didn't work," the tour guide concludes. "They found evidence of insanity," summing up in one phrase the failure of this first experiment in the isolation model prison -- or what today would be called a Control Unit or Super Max prison.
Charles Dickens traveled to Philadelphia from England in 1842 specifically to see the radical Penitentiary experiment. Dickens was abhorred by what he saw. 'I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body," he wrote after visiting the penitentiary.
By 1850, Eastern State's original plan was going awry. Overcrowding led to the construction of eight new cellblocks, adding to the original seven. Some had two stories, leaving no exercise area for those on the upper level. The second-story cells were built smaller to preserve the skylights in those on the ground floor. Further overcrowding led to double-celling prisoners. The isolation model (dubbed then as the "Pennsylvania model") was officially abandoned in 1913, and the penitentiary became a normal prison.
The isolation model was reborn 70 years later in 1983 when the federal penitentiary at Marion went on permanent lockdown. After isolating Marion prisoners in their tiny cells 23 hours a day, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) launched a public relations campaign wherein they coined the phrase "worst of the worst" to describe Marion's prisoners. In an ironic historical twist, Marion, the first modern isolation unit prison, was hailed as a repudiation of the failed "reform" model of imprisonment, offering a dramatic shift to a more punitive isolation model.
Despite strong organized protest against the Marion lockdown and unequivocal condemnation of the isolation (or Control Unit) model by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, the Marion Control Unit model offered too much appeal to political demagogues intent on capitalizing on "get tough" campaign rhetoric. Other control units followed.
In 1989, California constructed its infamous "Super Max" Pelican Bay State Prison in the far northern reaches of the state. In 1990, Indiana built its Max. Control Facility in Westville. The BOP opened a brand new control unit prison, Florence ADX, in Colorado in 1995.
Contrast the following description of a Florence ADX cell, written by Ray Luc Levasseur, with the refurbished Eastern State Penitentiary museum cell described above:
"I am in a 'boxcar' cell. Picture a cage where top, bottom, sides and back are concrete walls. The front is sliced by steel bars. Several feet beyond the bars is another wall. In this wall is a solid steel door .... Eleven hours each week I'm allowed into a barren area adjacent to this cell [to exercise] in something resembling the deep end of a cement lined pool."
There is no skylight, signifying the eye of God, in a Florence ADX isolation cell. Instead there is another omnipresent, unblinking eye. As Ray puts it: "Television deserves special mention. Unlike other prisons, every ADX cell is equipped with a small black and white TV, compliments of the BOP pacification program. Hollywood and Madison Avenue images are churned out through a barrage of talk shows, soaps, cartoons, and B-movies to give us some vicarious social interaction. Feeling rebellious, lonely, angry, miserable, alienated, unskilled and uneducated? Turn on the face of Amerika. The administration replaces a broken TV quicker than fixing a toilet."
Modern day control units have sprouted in 43 states as well as the BOP. Two identical "super maximum" prisons are currently under construction on isolated Virginia mountaintops. Both will open next year.
Charles Dickens won't visit those prisons. But modern control unit prisons have been visited and studied extensively over the last decade by Dr. Stuart Grassian, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Grassian studied 50 prisoners from Pelican Bay's control unit. He concluded that in 40 of the 50 prisoners he examined, control unit isolation "had either massively exacerbated a previous psychiatric illness or precipitated psychiatric symptoms associated with RES." [Reduced Environmental Stimulation, a psychiatric condition Grassian describes as characterized by: perceptual distortions, hallucinations, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, aggressive fantasies, overt paranoia, inability to concentrate, and problems with impulse control.]
In other words, Dickens was right. Or as the tour guide cheerfully informs the public about America's very first control unit prison: "It didn't work. Evidence of insanity was found."
That's all for this month. Until next month, visit your local library and study the history of U.S. prisons. You'll find that control units, private prisons, leasing convict labor to private corporations and chain gangs were all penological experiments that were tried -- and failed -- in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, it appears we are doomed to repeat them all.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login