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Eastern State Penitentiary was the first penitentiary in America. It was designed by British architect John Haviland and opened in 1829. It was one of the world's first penitentiaries , intended to revolutionize the prison system. The design was based on the principles of the Pennsylvania System, which aimed for solitary confinement and reflection to encourage prisoners' penitence and reform.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections defines it as the first true penitentiary. The Philadelphia Visitor Center Corporation describes it as the world's first true penitentiary. University Of Pennsylvania recognizes it as the world’s first true penitentiary. The World Record Academy declares it as the world's first true penitentiary.
During its operation, Eastern State Penitentiary housed some notable inmates, including Al Capone and Willie Sutton. Capone served time there in 1929-1930 for carrying a concealed weapon, while Sutton was a prolific bank robber who escaped from Eastern State twice.
The Pennsylvania System employed solitary confinement as a means of rehabilitation. Each inmate had their own cell, complete with plumbing and a skylight to provide light. Inmates were kept isolated from others, with the belief that solitude would lead to penitence and reform.
Over time, criticisms of the Pennsylvania System grew, with concerns raised about its impact on prisoners' mental health and its high cost of operation. Eastern State Penitentiary ceased operations as a prison in 1971, due to its outdated facilities and the changing attitudes towards incarceration.
After its closure, Eastern State Penitentiary fell into disrepair. However, efforts to preserve its historic significance began in the 1980s. Today, it operates as a museum and historic site, offering guided tours that explore its history, architecture, and the lives of its former inmates.
Eastern State Penitentiary stands as a reminder of the evolution of the prison system and the ongoing debates surrounding incarceration, rehabilitation, and punishment. Its architecture and history make it a significant cultural and educational site in Philadelphia.
The design is still considered groundbreaking. It was designed in the architectural style known as "Castellated Gothic," with imposing walls and towers resembling a fortress. The radial layout of cell blocks emanating from a central surveillance hub was innovative for its time and became a model for future prison design.
Eastern State Penitentiary remains an important landmark, shedding light on the evolution of the prison system and raising questions about the treatment of prisoners and the effectiveness of solitary confinement as a means of rehabilitation.
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