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Former Pennsylvania Prison All Solitary with Silence Mandatory

The thought progression is that prisoners become penitent as a result of spending time in a penitentiary after being found guilty of committing crimes.

In early-1800s Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends or Quakers, strongly disagreed with then-existing prisons and penology concepts and practices. They envisioned a place of solitude where convicts would spend all day, every day, by themselves with nothing but a Holy Bible to read. In such circumstances of penitent meditation, the convicts would see the error of their ways and become redeemed, positively contributing members of society when released.

Construction on Eastern State Penitentiary began in 1821 and was completed in 1829. The cells were huge in comparison to most of today’s 6-by-9 footers, measuring a full 7 and a half by 12 feet. Since the only time a convict would leave his cell was for one hour of recreation each day, running water was piped into each cell for a sink and flush toilet. The White House did not even have flush toilets until 1833!

Each cell had its own skylight to allow Bible reading.

Recreation took place in small outside enclosures isolated from each other. Prisoners were fed in their cells. A closable slot in each door allowed food trays to be passed. Heat was piped to each cell during cold weather.

All talking was forbidden, with silence ruling. Prison guards walked their rounds with socks on the outside of their shoes to muffle their footsteps. Not only was this the nation’s first, true penitentiary; it was the forerunner of what is known today as administrative segregation — a practice being ruled on by more and more courts as cruel and unusual punishment.

African American Charles Williams was this penitentiary’s very first prisoner, admitted on October 25, 1829.

As great expectations and grand experiments sometimes go, the Eastern State Penitentiary went. By 1945, it was clear this was not the way to go in felony imprisonment, and the Pennsylvania Legislature recommended its closure. This process took 25 years with the doors closing in 1970. The facility briefly housed prisoners from a county prison until its final closure in 1971.

Certified as a historical site, the Eastern State Penitentiary is now a Philadelphia tourist attraction. It is open to the public for tours seven days a week. 


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