Abandoned Souls

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From The Prison and the American Imagination by Caleb Smith (Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 99-100:

Buy the book.Eastern State was designed by John Haviland in the early 1820s. It received its first inmates in 1829 and was completed in 1836. Built on a radial plan, the prison was composed of 450 solitary cells, each lighted by a small skylight [commonly called an “eye of God”]. Ground floor cells were attached to private, enclosed exercise yards; second-floor cells were attached to private workrooms. Food and work materials were passed to the prisoner through an opening of about a foot square which, when not in use, was closed with a wooden hatch. A small peephole allowed officers to inspect the prisoner from the corridor, into which the prisoner could not see. A bed hung by chains from the ceiling. There was a vent, a water tap, and a flush toilet. Prisoners had human contact only with prison officials. For the most part, they ate, exercised, worked, and slept in complete isolation.

Solitary confinement, according to Roberts Vaux and the other advocates of the Pennsylvania system, “is intended to furnish the criminal with every opportunity which christian [sic] duty enjoins, for promoting his restoration to the path of virtue, because seclusion is believed to be an essential ingredient in moral treatment.” The cell, in the words of Eastern State’s first Board of Directors, would serve “to turn the thoughts of the convict inwards upon himself, and to teach him how to think.” At Cherry Hill [the site of the prison], the ideal of reflection was manifest in one of the most sophisticated architectural achievements in nineteenth-century America. The prisoner’s universe, for the duration of his confinement, was bound by four walls, and the effect was that the walls became mirrors. Facing the stone structure of the cell, wrote George Washington Smith, the prisoner at Eastern State “will be compelled to reflect on the error of his ways.” Throughout their many histories, pamphlets, and open letters on the Pennsylvania system, reformers invoked this image, of a prisoner’s consciousness divided against itself, the “penitent” mind struggling against the “criminal” one that binds it.

Ted Daniels is the editor of several books including A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation (NYU Press, 1999), and he published a newsletter about apocalyptic movements. He has been a photographer for most of his life and lives in Philadelphia. Visit his website at http://www.graycard.org.