Eastern State Penitentiary is believed to be one of the very first prisons established, not only in the United States, but in the world. Eastern State was functional for 141 years until 1970 when the prison closed down. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the prison is now a stabilized ruin open to the public for tours. After personally touring the facility I was able to understand the main purpose of the prison, the living conditions and the daily routines of an Eastern State Penitentiary inmate, and attempted escapes which is why prisons like Eastern State should not be used in our modern Criminal Justice System.
It was designed for strict solitary confinement and had little to no rehabilitation programs. The prison was and still is not temperature controlled. The inmates suffered extreme summers and harsh winters while staying at Eastern State. Their rooms were quite small and only had a bed, some sort of dresser, and a toilet. The condition of the cells, with the exception of Al-Capone’s cell which was much larger and more comfortable than the rest of the cells, suggest that the designers of the prison wanted the inmates stay at Eastern State to be unpleasant.
This prison was built for the sole purpose of punishment. For example, Elmo Smith was the 350th person to be executed by the electric chair in the United States on April 2, 1962. He was also the last person to be killed using the electric chair in Pennsylvania. Although the inmates were required to work within the prison walls they did not receive help with the problems that landed them in Eastern State in the first place, such as alcohol and drug abuse. Therefore the type of punishment that was seen at Eastern State did not maximize the welfare of individuals because inmates were not rehabilitated.
As stated earlier, the inmates worked in the kitchen, infirmary, workshops, and barbershops. In the twentieth century you could see an inmate barbershop in almost every cell block. The barbershops became a place of socialization by the inmates and often the guards would go in for a free cut. When I learned this I was shocked that the guards allowed the inmates to have sharp tools that had the potential of being used as weapons. In fact, one story we heard on our audio tour was of a guard who said an inmate pressed his tool to the guard’s neck and threatened to take his life. The inmate was joking and the officer was left unharmed but inmates were known to create weapons that were used for protection and a way of threating other inmates.
These weapons were called shanks or shivs and prison guards discovered a majority of them before any harm could occur. Unfortunately there were stories of inmates killing each other such as Joseph Havel who stabbed his fellow cellmate to death in the middle of the night. Another important component in the life of Eastern State Penitentiary inmates was the opportunity to practice in religious activities. Upon entry, every inmate was given a Bible in hopes of one day they would receive salvation. Also, in the beginning of the prison’s life there were weekly religious services in every cellblock that the inmates had the chance to listen to from their cells. In later years, Christians had the opportunity to worship in the chapel during Sundays while Jews had the opportunity to worship in the synagogue. Religious freedom was the only freedom that the inmates received. They were strictly monitored and had to wake, eat, work, and sleep when the guards told them too. Although the guards did their best to keep an eye on every inmate, the system employed at Eastern State was flawed.
Eastern State Penitentiary was designed for strict solitary confinement but that system failed and the population of inmates increased dramatically leaving the guards outnumbered. They tried to maintain surveillance and control of the institution. One way they monitored the inmates was using forming the cellblocks into a pentagon and having a watch tower in the middle. This design was flawed because it was impossible for the guard in the watch tower to see every cell and every part of the cells. Prison guards at Eastern State hated working in the watch tower, a position left for new recruits, because they felt more restricted than the inmates. They could not listen to music or read, had little human contact, and had to call their commanding officer every fifteen minutes to check in.
Prison officials liked to believe that these methods of surveillance worked but there were numerous riots and attempted escapes by the inmates. The largest riot was on January 8, 1961 in cellblock nine when two inmates over powered an office and then they proceeded to opening other cells. They tried to set their criminal records on fire. Another example was William Francis Sutton who attempted to escape five times. Lastly, there was the great escape from cellblock seven, cell 68. Clarence Klinedinst had a reputation as a good worker which he used to be transfer to cellblock seven where he started using the tools from work to build a tunnel. Riots and escapes such as these lead to the closing of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1970. Prisons such as Eastern state should not be used today because, according to the utilitarian theory of justice, the ends do not justify the means. A lot of money is put into them when all they do is hold inmates for a number of years and then they are released into the community. With no form of rehabilitation the released inmates revert back to crime and are reincarcerated. The cycle is never ending and prisons become overpopulated and prone to riots as was Eastern State Penitentiary.
Courtney from Study Moose
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