Eastern State Penitentiary oral history project
Held at: Eastern State Penitentiary [Contact Us]2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 19130
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, commonly known as Eastern State Penitentiary, was the world's first true "penitentiary" in the sense that it was designed to inspire true feelings of penitence in the hearts of inmates.
"...Most eighteenth century prisons were simply large holding pens. Groups of adults and children, men and women, and petty thieves and murderers, sorted out their own affairs behind locked doors. Physical punishment and mutilation were common, and abuse of the prisoners by the guards and overseers was assumed.
"In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society's goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design. He proposed a radical idea: to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal's heart. The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program. It took the Society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build the kind of prison it suggested: a revolutionary new building on farmland outside Philadelphia. "Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.
"Eastern's seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland's ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner [in] his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.... "Virtually all prisons designed in the nineteenth century, world wide, were based on one of two systems: New York State's Auburn System, and the Pennsylvania System embodied in the Eastern State Penitentiary. During the century following Eastern's construction, more than 300 prisons in South America, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and across the British Empire were based on its plan....The Pennsylvania System was abandoned in 1913. In some countries in Europe and Asia the separate system continued until the post-Second World War period.
"The later additions into the Eastern State Penitentiary complex illustrate the compromise reached when this munificent, ill-fated intellectual movement collided with the reality of modern prison operation. Warden Michael Cassidy added the first cellblocks in the 1870s and 1890s. They retain the barrel vaults and skylights, the feeding doors and mechanical systems. Mirrors provide continued surveillance into the new cellblocks from the Rotunda. But the cells did not include exercise yards. Inmates were issued hoods with--for the first time--eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity. The system of solitary confinement at Eastern State did not so much collapse as erode away over the decades. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued. By 1909 an inmate newspaper, The Umpire, ran a monthly roster of the inter-Penitentiary baseball league scores. "The Penitentiary administration produced a silent movie in 1929 to celebrate the building’s Centennial. The film focuses not on the historic nature of the building, aside from occasional references to its age, but on the modern improvements and recent changes made to the building. It depicts the new; factory-style weaving shops; the commercial-grade bakery and kitchens, staffed by dozens of inmates twenty-four hours a day; and the new guard towers with searchlights and sirens. Inmates are seen by the hundreds, filling the yards between spokes of the cellblocks. They line up in the new dining halls. But these inmates move, throughout, in the shell of the old Pennsylvania System. The cells, now used for two or three men, have barrel-vaulted ceilings, skylights, and a curious, walled-up door in the back. The work shops and dining halls are ten feet wide and hundreds of feet long; they are former exercise yards, roofed over, their party walls removed....
"The last major addition was made to Eastern State Penitentiary’s complex of buildings in 1956: Cellblock Fifteen, or Death Row. This modern prison block marked the final abandonment of any aspect of the Eastern’s original architectural vocabulary. The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times. Within the Penitentiary's perimeter wall, built with the belief that all people are capable of redemption, prisoners awaited execution. "Some of America's most notorious criminals were held in Eastern's cells. When gangster Al Capone found himself in front of a judge for the first time in 1929, he was sentenced to one year in prison. He spent most of that sentence in relative comfort at Eastern State, where he was allowed to furnish his cell with antiques, rugs, and oil paintings. Bank robber Willie Sutton joined eleven other men in a doomed 1945 tunnel escape.
"By the 1960's, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994, and, in 1997, signed a twenty-year agreement with the City to operate the site. A new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001."
Quoted text from: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. "General Overview." Accessed June 19, 2012. http://www.easternstate.org/learn/research-library/history
This collection consists of about 160 oral history interviews with former inmates, employees of the State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ("Eastern State Penitentiary"), family members of employees, and volunteers such as chaplains. The interviews were conducted circa 1992-2012 and mainly cover the mid-20th century period of the prison's history, from around the 1930s until its closure in 1971. Topics covered include: death row, description of cells and prison architecture, drugs/alcohol/gambling, escapes and riots, comparisons to other prisons, food, medical/dental/mental/psychiatric care, racial issues, readjusting to life outside, religion, violence/weapons, sexuality, and women. The interviews cover prison experiences and memories, and constitute a rich resource of information with personal, detailed accounts of daily life at the prison, its history, and significant events.
The interviews were originally recorded on VHS or audiocassette tapes, and Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc. is in the process of digitizing, transcribing, and indexing the interviews. A list of all the interviewees is available on-site.
Interviews conducted by Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc., beginning in 1993 and ongoing as of 2012. A set of tapes were donated by Dr. Richard Fulmer.
Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2011-2012 as part of a pilot project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.
In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. directly for more information.
- Eastern State Penitentiary
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
- This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Access Restrictions
Contact Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. for information about accessing this collection.