Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Visit to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

I am on vacation this week in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States of America. I have accompanied my wife on one of her speaking engagements, and while she works I experience the city of foot. This has been my fullest day this week, just in time for our return tomorrow to Minnesota. I am happy to report that I have walked more than 18,000 steps today, most of them from our hotel to Independence Hall and back. Once there I hailed one of the tour buses, disembarking at what is now a visitor's site, the Eastern State Penitentiary. This penitentiary was first opened in 1829 and saw its last prisoners leave in 1971. The tour is self-guided with the assistance of an easy-to-use listening device. I spent nearly two hours in the experience, moving at a fairly steady pace; I could have spent at least another hour there, exploring empty cell blocks and listening to further presentations with more attention to detail. It was really quite fascinating.

In the past few years I have become much more interested with the history of penology as a parent of a couple adult "kids" who have found their way behind bars as a result of breaking the law. I must say that the adoption journey has provided many opportunities for me to think about situations that earlier in my life rarely crossed my mind. Sure, I had thought philosophically about the criminal justice system as a college student, debated about it during my years in seminary, even initiated a visit to a prison years ago with two of our foster children in attempt to "scare them straight." I am not sure what ever became of the two foster kids, but I was always hopeful that I wouldn't be the parent of kids behind bars. Unfortunately, that has not proven to be the case, and I have had to come face-to-face with more than philosophical meanderings about criminal justice.


ESP came about due to the prison reform concerns of leading Philadelphians like Benjamin Franklin and (Episcopal) Bishop William White. They and others formed what was then called The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (it first met in May 1787). My visit to ESP reminded me that in many cases the purpose of incarceration was not punishment for crimes committed; it was created as an opportunity for the "criminal" to become "penitent" (note that this is the root of the word "penitentiary"). While not all facilities were built with this purpose in mind, ESP was in the early 1800s. Even the language used to describe the experience connected with religious imagery. Ask a priest or other person familiar with the ways of the monastic, and he will be clear that even today in such a setting an individual monastic's room is called a "cell." In the cell was an opportunity for solitude, confession and amendment of life.

At ESP in the early days prisoners were "hooded" before entering the facility, until they were securely locked in their cell. This was to protect their identity from being observed by others, as well as protecting the identity of those already incarcerated. Once in the cell they had the bare minimums -- a bed, a bench and a cast iron toilet. Interestingly, ESP has indoor plumbing in place before the White House in Washington, DC! Once a day for an hour's time the inmate was allowed to step into the fresh air immediately behind his cell. Each cell had an individual area for outside exercise; no contact was permitted between prisoners. In the early years, an individual could serve the length of his sentence and not have contact with any other prisoner during that time period.

I found this picture too interesting to pass up. It is a picture from the "early days" with an inmate in his cell. He has a writing desk, a bed and on the wall above the door to his exercise area in back is a cross (the picture does not show that clearly) in the center, with two pictures on either side. Immediately above the door is this text:

I believe in God my Father
And in Jesus Christ my Saviour
And in the Holy Spirit, who comforts me and leads me into all truth


Compared with today's context, it seems a glaringly sectarian approach to reform. A clear statement of the traditional Christian understanding of a trinitarian God would never find state approval in today's culture. It would seem, in fairness, that it wasn't a universal at ESP, either, as there was a synagogue and a rabbincal leader for inmates of Jewish faith. However, the role of religious faith was, for those who created this penitentiary, paramount. To reform one's life meant, by default, the need to connect with God.

There don't seem to be any good records as to the success rate of ESP. It is not known whether ESP's approach to reforming a criminal's life was more fruitful than those penitentiaries where punishment was more the norm. I have to wonder, though, how much benefit might be derived from the appropriate exploration of spirituality by those currently incarcerated. (I'm not advocating that state or federal penitentiaries be places where faith is forced upon anyone, but why wouldn't society benefit from the opportunity to offer to a "captive" audience the opportunity to "reform" based upon a new or renewed relationship with the Divine?)

It seems to me that the United States of America -- with more people incarcerated than any other country in the world -- might rethink some of our criminal justice processes. Perhaps it is time to form a new Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. It is nearly two hundred years since this positive model was initiated. What might it look like today?

2 comments:

FAScinated said...

This was so interesting, Bart! Thanks for sharing what you experienced today. It certainly makes one wonder...

Becky said...

I too was fascinated by the penitent nature and design of the ESP, and I especially liked the small skylight in each cell representing the eye of God upon each man. I think as with so many things in society we've gotten too busy or overwhelmed to really pay attention to individual members' needs. It is nice to know that was once a standard, even if it was only one prison in the country and only for a short while.