A prison people wanted to visit

When Charles Dickens visited the United States, he wanted to see two things: Niagara Falls and Eastern State Penitentiary.

The foreboding Gothic fortress opened in October 1829, months after The Inquirer began publication, the steel-and-stone representation of a new idea.

No longer would people in prison be whipped, beaten and starved. At Eastern State, they would be given the time and means to become penitent, a Quaker-inspired solitary confinement allowing them to contemplate their sins and mend their ways.

Cells came equipped with skylights, that the imprisoned might look to God. Inmates were given a Bible and a job, such as shoemaking. When prisoners left their cells they had to wear hoods, to enforce silence and also to hide their faces, so that when they rejoined society they would not be recognized as criminals.

In 1842, when Dickens arrived, debate was raging about whether constant solitary confinement helped or hurt. It seemed some prisoners were being driven insane by the silence and isolation. By 1913, Eastern State administrators had abandoned the practice.

Dickens could have told them it wouldn't work.

"I am persuaded that those who designed this system . . . do not know what it is they are doing," he wrote after his visit. "I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."