Philly Youth Explore Mass Incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary

Teva and Karabots Fellows interact with tour guide Lauren Bennett at Eastern State Penitentiary

Recently students from the Karabots Junior Fellows and Teva Pharmaceuticals Interns ventured to ominous Eastern state Penitentiary to learn about the prison’s unique history and delve deeper into the role prisons play in society today. Astute readers of this blog will recall the Karabots Fellows recently met with Lauren Zalut, the site’s Director of Education and Tour Programs, to explore the topic of justice and how it relates to prisons. On a gray, rainy day, the students trekked to Fairmount to see “America’s most historic prison” for themselves.

Daytime facade of Eastern State Penitentiary

Image Source: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

There they met with Lauren Bennett, one of the site’s experienced tour guides. Lauren brought them through Eastern State’s imposing Front Gate and led them through the prison’s 142 year history. Along the way they learned how Eastern State Penitentiary initially opened in 1829 as an institution based around the (then) revolutionary idea that prisoners should be rehabilitated and prepared to reenter society, rather than simply punished. To that end, inmates were subject to constant solitary confinement throughout the duration of their sentence (for the predominantly nonviolent offenders that comprised the penitentiary’s early inmate population, this meant roughly an average of 2-3 years). The founders’ hope was this isolation would foster personal reflection and inspire the inmates to feel penitence (hence the term “penitentiary”).

The ambitious “separate system” eventually broke down due to overcrowding and other logistical and administrative factors. Solitary confinement was abandoned in 1913, when the prison officially changed to the communal (“congregate”) prison system seen in modern prisons. As the years went on, the inmate population consisted of more violent offenders who served for longer sentences, including life in prison as well as “death row” inmates, and the focus on rehabilitation largely gave way to security and protecting the public. The prison shut down in 1971 as a result of a variety of factors, including the high cost of maintaining a prison built in the 1820s and the close proximity to a residential neighborhood. Eastern State remained abandoned until the 1990s, when it opened for an annual fundraiser during Halloween (now known as Terror Behind the Walls) and opened for daytime visits in 1994.

Students from  the Karabots Junior Fellows Program and the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program discuss prisons wih Eastern State Penitentiary Tour Guide Lauren Bennett


Recently, Eastern State has expanded their focus from the history of the building itself to addressing the larger issue of prison in America. The United States houses the highest number of prisoners in the world (2.2 million as of 2015), and the number of people in prison skyrocketed in the four decades since ESP closed its gates; however, the rate of crime between 1970 and 2016 has remained roughly the same despite the large amount of people in prison. America is viewed as being in a state of “mass incarceration,” and ESP has committed to getting the public to seriously consider the the social, cultural, racial, and economic  factors that have contributed to it.

One of the Teva fellows interacts with a touch screen-based poll at Prison's Today, an exhibit on mass incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary

Along the way Lauren challenged the students to consider why societies build prisons. They also discussed together different possible solutions to America’s high incarceration, including more effective drug programs, higher education funding, measures to alleviate poverty and providing alternatives to prison for certain offences. They tackled a complex topic with complex solutions, which left their adult chaperones (and Lauren herself) impressed. After their tour ended, the students explored Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the site’s new exhibit on the subject.

The Karabots Junior Fellows Ask Questions About Justice and Prisons

Daytime facade of Eastern State Penitentiary

Image Source: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

As part of their year-long focus on forensic science, the Karabots Junior Fellows have been exposed to issues related to the larger criminal justice system, of which forensics comprises a small part. This week the Fellows learned about American prisons and the complex political issue that is mass incarceration. On Saturday, May 21, they along with students from the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program will be making a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to view the historic site and its new exhibit on the impact of prisons in America.

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 as an ambitious new approach to criminal justice. The prison operated on the idea of rehabilitating inmates to inspire “penitence,” or deep regret (hence the word “penitentiary”, of which ESP was the first). While at Eastern State, they will take a tour of the building’s history, explore the cellblocks, and learn about the role prisons play in America today.

Lauren Zalut, Director of Education at Eastern State Penitentiary, works with the Karabots Junior Fellows to find a definition of "justice"

In preparation for their visit to the Penitentiary, the Karabots Junior Fellows met with Lauren Zalut, Director of Education and Tour Programs for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. In keeping with the site’s focus on discussion-based programming, Lauren offered a deceptively simple question for the Fellows to ponder: “What is justice?” The Fellows went around the room, with each offering their own definition and addressing topics such as fairness, civil rights, retribution, and social injustice.

One of the Karabots Junior Fellows shares his opinion of justice and prisons

Lauren then had the Fellows divide into pairs and share with each other the first time they had ever encountered injustice. Each student then shared personal stories of their encounters with injustice, from violence, to discrimination, to racial profiling. In doing so, Lauren challenged the Fellows to consider the economic, social, political, and racial factors that have contributed to the United States having the world’s largest prison population (the US currently has roughly 2.2 million people in prison and houses roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners). Finally, she had them write on a note card one subject they hope to learn more about during their visit. We will see how many new facts about prisons and the criminal justice system they learn when they visit this weekend.

The Karabots Junior Fellows examine cards on which they have written what they want to learn during their upcoming trip to Eastern State Penitentiary

New Article from the Wellspring: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Girls in Juvenile Justice Systems

Banner for The Wellspring

The following article comes from The Wellspring, our sister site devoted to providing mental health resources related to the LGBTQ+ community:

The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Girls in Juvenile Justice Systems: A Counselor’s Reflection

By Kierson Romero

A recent study has shown that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system compared to heteronormative counterparts. “ Although they represent approximately 6% of the youth population, it is estimated that this group makes up 13% to 15% of youth in juvenile justice systems, a number that often surprises juvenile justice professionals.”  The majority of the juvenile justice system does not accommodate or provide support to this unique subgroup of juvenile offenders. A study published by Holsinger and Hodge in 2016  examined “the challenges for staff, for facilities, and for the girls, as well as considered staff recommendations for changes in policies or programs that are needed to support girls who identify as LGBT.” [Read More]