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.
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.
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.
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.