On 4th of July I celebrated freedom by visiting the world’s first penitentiary, Easter State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, PA. Unlike modern prisons, Eastern State was designed to make a man penitent. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. They weren’t allowed to talk and could only read the Bible or do manual labor, such as shoe repair, to pass the time.
It was an odd mix of torture and luxury – ESP had central heat and running water before the White House did. Every cell had a sky light. At the same time, if you were caught trying to talk you’d be gagged with a horrible metal apparatus. Established in 1829 and left to ruin in 1971 ESP makes for some fabulous photographs.
In October it houses one of the scariest haunted house attractions in the US. I deliberately planned my trip for a time when that wouldn’t be in place. I’m not sure I can support the idea of a place of real horror being turned into an attraction. I like a good scare as much as the next girl, but it seems disrespectful to ignore the decades of very real suffering in search of a good time.
The ruins each that mix of good and bad. A red cross marked the door to the hospital, a place that was famous for offering new and innovative treatment.
Psychologists worked hard to get inmates to a healthier place. At the same time, physicians worked to cure cancer and treat heart attacks, no aliment was left unaddressed. The prison even employed its own dentist. But it’s hard to imagine that everyone worked to for the betterment of all.
There are a lot of ways to torture a man. By the 70s ESP had stopped strapping them into chairs or gagging them. Instead they built the new wings of the prison to be endless, curving rows of cells.
I’ve never really thought about prisons, how they were or how they should be. ESP forces the question, but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.