Eastern State Penitentiary

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  • Posted by kindle

In 2003 We took a trip to Philadelphia and while there I spent a day photographing  Eastern State Penitentiary. It was a prison built by the Quakers that in it’s time was well outside the city limits and quite advanced in its construction. Opened in 1829, it was the first prison in the United States that was directed towards true reform.

The prison was built on a bicycle wheel design with a central hub, and spokes of cell blocks intersecting it. One guard using a series of mirrors could view down each cell block. Prisoners, upon entering the main gate, were hooded and walked to the main yard and into a small walled outdoor exercise yard attached to each cell. The prisoner was inserted into their cell via this entrance. It was assumed this would reduce escape attempts as the prisoner would have no idea of his true location.

The cells were designed for single occupancy and with the attached and walled off exercise yard comprised nearly the entire experience for the inmate. The warden visited each inmate daily, and the guards viewed each inmate a minimum of three times daily.

The concept of rehabilitation practiced was strict isolation and silence for contemplation on religion and sins. The cell was lit by a single slit of a skylight that became known as “The Eye of God” to further this aim. It was stressed that God was always watching. The inmates were given fresh clothing and a bible upon admittance.

The doors were small and inmates had to bow down to enter and exit the cells. Whether this was done to reduce assaults on guards, or promote obedience to God no one knows. Meals and drink were originally given through a small portal, but this proved inadequate quickly. However the cells otherwise were quite advanced for the day. A faucet with running water as well as a toilet were built in the cells during the time when the White House still featured the president using a chamber pot. The toilets however were only flushed twice a week remotely by the guards.

In addition to the sanitary plumbing, the cells had a series of pipes along one wall that curved back and forth to create a type of radiator. Though crude by our standards today, hot water was run in the pipes to heat the cells to a fairly comfortable temperature. This was a true innovation in prisons of the day.

The prison became overcrowded even before being completed, so the new cellblocks were designed to be two stories tall. This meant that the upper tier of cells lost the outdoor exercise yard that the lower cells had. As the inmate population grew, more cell blocks were added in between existing spokes of cellblocks.

The vision of rehabilitation via solitary confinement eventually ended due to two factors. First, many inmates basically went insane being alone and silent for years, and because overcrowding demanded space for more beds.

The entire complex encompasses eleven acres. There were other areas such as a chapel, a hospital, the warden’s apartment, greenhouses, storage buildings, workshops and a kitchen. The prison was built to look like a castle. Its walls thirty feet high and eleven feet thick were meant to instill fear and dread to hopefully intimidate anyone from wanting to be incarcerated within.

The city grew over the years to surround the prison, which held inmates until 1969. After it’s closure, it was used for various purposes by the city of Philadelphia and near the end it was used to house city vehicles within its spacious yards.

Many notable criminals called Eastern State home. Probably the most well known was Al Capone. In this instance, even back then, money and power swayed minds and bent rules as Mr. Capone was supposedly allowed to put a comfortable bed, a radio and other amenities within his cell.

During my visit, after speaking with the staff, I was granted extraordinary access to the grounds. I was given the basic tour, then left to my own supervision and allowed to visit and photograph in many areas that were off limits to regular tourists.

I was able to visit the chapel, the warden’s apartment, interior exercise yards, a guard tower, medical facilities and other areas including the roof of the warden’s home. This was accessed via a spiral staircase basically inside a closet enclosure with doors and had a steel hatch at the top that had to be unlatched before it could be opened. This proved extremely difficult given the amount of photography equipment I was carrying and the fact that it had to be done in pitch black conditions. When I was finished, the reverse had to be done, again while navigating this stairway in the dark. Some images were indeed difficult to capture due to debris or just the instability of the area.

Many of my photographs feature areas not available to most visitors at the time. In addition they show some of these same areas such as the operating room before any stabilization or restoration work was done.  My photographs show areas in their existing ruinous states untouched by everything except time and decay.

On the technical side, my images are all photographed with Nikon equipment.  F4 and N90s bodies, lenses ranging from 24mm wide angle to 200mm telephoto and all were shot hand held with natural light everywhere possible and flash units when natural light was not an option. All the images were shot on various types of Fuji slide and Kodak 35mm print films.  Eastern state was a true challenge to photograph. The scale of the subject is immense and the lighting is wide in scope from barely there to completely washing a scene of all details.  

I have copied the chromes to a digital format using a Nikon D2x with a vintage 55mm Nikon nikkor macro lens with Slide copier attachment ES-1 and a K extension tube, lit with a Nikon SB-800 flash TTL with an SC-28 cable. This equipment is mounted together using a Bogen tripod, rails and ball heads. All images are full frame with no cropping. The images are corrected for some basic tone and color balance adjustments and a touch of sharpening. A few have been converted to black and white for effect,  otherwise they are a true version of what I experienced and viewed through my cameras. The images are presented in no particular order but encompass as much of the site as possible within constraints of time and access.

I was fascinated with Eastern State the first time I watched a program about its history. The prison has been a tourist attraction since 1994. It is now a historical site and museum. Tours are available year round and the prison hosts several events yearly. It was a great experience and an honor to be trusted to explore the site on my own. Even after 20 years, I find myself in awe, and thinking of everyone who resided and worked in the prison and the history of the site. You can almost hear the sounds and voices of so long ago when you are alone in some of the more remote areas of the prison. It’s hard to not be emotionally moved by such a place. If you find yourself in Philadelphia, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the site. It is well worth the time.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Edit – In case you are interested, some scenes depicting a futuristic mental hospital in the 1995 movie “12 Monkeys” with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt were filmed inside Eastern State.