Eastern State Penitentiary
is right in the middle of Philadelphia. It's not in Center City (the downtown area), but it's a quick walk from downtown to the prison. When it was built, it was on the periphery of the city, but over time, it was swallowed up by Philadelphian sprawl.
You can tour the prison, which is kept in a state of stabilized decay, either by yourself or with an audio guide. For our first time, we opted to just walk around on our own. When we first entered one of the spokes of this radial prison
, I was in awe. It's amazing. If you're into industrial decay, check out the Andrew's gallery of all the prison photos
. My favorites are the the one above, the wooden door with peeling green paint
, and the wall of crackle paint
The cells are small, but not much smaller than my San Francisco apartment where I lived for 6 years. They all have a little sky light, as do the main corridors. It's deadly quiet inside the prison because the very tall wall surrounding it, blocks out all the city noise. It seemed like such a haven. I imagine that if you swept the place up, you could use it as a Buddhist meditation retreat. It was nice to be in there with all the quiet.
When we entered a spoke that had two tiers of cells, the feeling was even more reverent. The ceilings are vaulted, and the light shines in at such beautiful angles. I wasn't surprised when I learned that the radial architecture was loosely based on a European Monastery.
I bought the book they had in the gift shop about the prison's history, architecture, and philosophy. The book is great and I finally finished reading it this weekend. I didn't realize that before this prison, everyone was chucked into one big room together. Sometimes they'd chain you to the floor, but usually it was one big free-for-all. Sounds great, doesn't it?
When it was built, Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the only buildings in America with indoor plumbing. A lot of care and attention to detail was used to make this a prison a place where you could focus all you energy on being penitent - all alone. They even built individual, walled exercise yards that were connected to each cell. If you left your cell, you had to wear a hood. Those Quakers meant business.
When I want to create something, I need to know what the point is, what I am trying to achieve. This applies whether it's a web application or a felt stuffie. "Why?" That's the question I ask the most. The Quakers knew the Why of their prison ... to reform a prisoner by isolating them completely to contemplate their sins. I really have to applaud them for at least asking (and answering) the question, even if their chosen methods were pretty much the most inhumane and cruel kind of torture I could imagine. Especially for such crimes as "Fraudulent Conversion." For crying out loud.
I don't claim to be an expert on penology, but our current system is totally fucked up. And, the biggest problem is that we haven't answered the Why. Why do we have prisons? To separate people who have broken the laws from those that haven't? To punish? To deter? To reform? I think if we could answer the Why, we could design a prison system that actually fulfills it's mission.
As far as I can tell, we've decided that it's in our country's best interest to create a training ground for criminals, a place where sexual and physical victimization is overlooked, a place that generates a lot of income for a few people, and a place that half-heartedly tries to attend to the emotional needs of those incarcerated.
I believe that if you do certain things in our society, that you should be separated from it. Forever. I personally don't have a problem with the death penalty, but, because of the fallibility of the justice system, the prohibitive costs involved in capital punishment, and the fact that we are one of a handful of nations that still do it
(we are *not* in good company), I think we should stop. Instead of the death penalty, I think we should build a little Japanese capsule hotel
style prison, sans TV, for those people.
Other people, the ones that have messed up bad, but don't necessary need to be separated from society forever, they should be in a prison where they are being punished. They should have a little cell, all by themselves, a couple hours of outside time, and books. They should be under constant surveillance. There shouldn't be any prisoners getting shanked in the yard or bent over in the showers.
I know there are a lot of things that don't fit into this model, like prisoners who need counseling or maybe who even need to be institutionalized. Obviously there is a much bigger problem with our society that we wait to "help" people until after they fuck up so bad that they are in prison. I think we should take much better care of our citizenry, imprisoned or not.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.[photo taken 6-11-2005 in Philadelphia][title from the lyrics of "They Took A Vote And Said No" by Sunset Rubdown from the album "Shut Up I Am Dreaming"]