† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST
Eastern State Penitentiary, Cautionary Tales
by nancy a heitzeg
The ethics of prison tours is a subject broached here before — whether it be tours of prisons currently in operation such as LSP Angola or Central California Facility for Women, (where prisoners are encountered and sometimes displayed) or the prison as museums/tourist attractions as Alcatraz is. And so too Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), the first true prison in the U.S. and the architectural model for many institutions around the world.
The questions that always arise are these: What are we expected to learn here? Are there social justice lessons that can outweigh the costs of participation?
Eastern State Penitentiary is a story of the pitfalls of reform gone awry. Founded in an era where institutions were believed to be a panacea for social ills, ESP was meant to rehabilitate through solitary reflect and penance. It was meant to be better than the Bedlam that was once the Walnut Street Jail, but in the end, it was not. Buried alive in catacomb like cells, the endless solitary confinement produced its’ own sort of madness. Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842, and wrote:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
Eastern State Penitentiary is also a story of repetitious history. The solitary design of ESP exactly foreshadows — in stone rather than steel – the design and horrors of Pelican Bay, of Florence ADX, of any Super Max. Nearly 200 years ago it was known that 23 hour a day lock down and extreme social isolation would drive prisoners mad — and yet the practice persists, by default or design.
In the end, perhaps what we learn on all prison tours is this: No good can ever come of it.
12 Monkeys, filmed at Eastern State Penitentiary, 1995