Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadephia PA
Oddly, “shipwreck” is a word that came to mind when visiting Eastern State Penitentiary today, but when it opened in 1829 it was the most modern building in the world. The structure was designed to reform criminals, instead of merely punish them, through strict isolation and labor. Seven wings like wheel spokes were built around a central surveillance hub, and each 8x12 cell was equipped with a primitive flush toilet, central heat, and small outdoor exercise area. No visitors, books, or contact with other prisoners were allowed. Tourists came to visit the cutting-edge building, including Charles Dickens, who denounced the solitary design writing, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
As the penitentiary grew more crowded in the 20th century, the practice of keeping every prisoner in solitary confinement was abandoned. The prison closed in 1971 and fell into ruin, overrun with vines, rust and feral cats. Today it is once again one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia, and you can take selfies in front of a recreation of Al Capone’s cell, a 97-foot tunnel dug in a 1945 prison escape, and a mugshot of Pep, an incarcerated dog.
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