Each fall, visitors flock to Philadelphia to indulge in the macabre delight of “Terror Behind the Walls.” Eastern State Penitentiary’s enormous haunted house ranks among the best in the United States, with stunning set designs and legions of dedicated actors. But between September and November of 1933, a different horror engulfed the imposing Gothic structure: a series of riots stemming from awful living conditions.
Eastern State’s history is one of hopeful reform and failure. The prison resulted from the enlightenment philosophies of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which counted Declaration of Independence signees Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin among its members. Following the Revolution, the society sought to direct the young nation away from public, corporal forms of punishment to a humane system that would chip away at antisocial behaviors by promoting self-reflection.
In 1821, the Pennsylvania legislature earmarked funding to create Eastern State, the flagship of a penological model based on the society’s principles, known as the Pennsylvania System.
Eastern State’s structure — designed by architect John Haviland — emphasized solitudinous incarceration as a means for facilitating penitence. The building’s militaristic exterior, lined with medieval European turrets, provided a foil for a relatively monastic interior, which integrated vaulted hallways and skylights so inmates could better commune with God.
Prison’s administrators pursued maximum solitude — known today as solitary confinement — for inmates, from requiring guards to wear socks over their shoes to mute their movement to mandating that prisoners don hoods when escorted outside their cells.
For all its reformist trappings, Eastern State almost immediately attracted scrutiny. A prisoner died in 1833 after guards bound him in a brutal instrument known as an “iron gag.” Just one year later, state investigators probed prison practices and audited its books for the first time. This would occur periodically throughout the prison’s 142 years of operation.
Public intellectuals took opposing sides on the Pennsylvania System. French writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville asked if there could be a model “more powerful for reformation.” English author Charles Dickens strongly disagreed. Following a visit to Eastern State, Dickens wrote: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Dickens had a point. While prison authorities erroneously blamed mental instability among its inmates on masturbation and race (African Americans, they bigotedly maintained, were particularly susceptible), solitary confinement ended up being a feared form of punishment, creating more issues than it solved. Combined with overcrowding and economic infeasibility, the Pennsylvania System’s inefficacy led to the model’s gradual collapse in the final decades of the 19th century. Eastern State formally dropped the model in 1913, switching to a “Congregate System” that permitted greater social interaction. This transition amounted to a tacit acknowledgment by administrators and their political overseers that the Philadelphia Society’s grand experiment had failed.
Moving punishment from the public to the private sphere, substituting incarceration for flogging, early prison reformers inadvertently paved the way for the challenges that Eastern State would face in the 20th century, presaging the issues that would plague the U.S. prison system generally. The 1933 riots at Eastern State arose over poor food offerings and crowded living conditions. The next massive riot, in 1961, sowed the seeds of the prison’s closure in 1971.
Perhaps Eastern State’s greatest achievement is its current role as a curatorial space — best reflected in its “Prisons Today” exhibit — encouraging public reflection on penological failures.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org