Once the largest and most expensive building in the United States, Eastern State Penitentiary was the stone and mortar expression of a radical new idea in public policy in the early 19th century. The idea, born of Quaker beliefs in non-violence and later called the "Pennsylvania Plan," was that felons need not be subjected to corporal punishment in order to pay for their crimes. Instead, imprisonment and education with an eye toward eventual pentience should be the goal of criminal justice. That imprisonment would be solitary, involve labor, and would take place in individual cells, entombed in perfect silence, behind walls 30 feet high and 8 feet thick at their base. According to Marilyn D McShane & Frank P. Williams (2004), while imprisoned, criminals would learn a trade, reflect on their life, receive guidance, and re-enter society a better person.
After 142 years of operation, the prison was shut down in 1971. Today it serves as a museum, and, in this author's opinion, it is a shining example of theory, practice, and exploration within the discipline of public history.
Caption: Stabilized, but not restored, the prison's unheated cells and corridors serve as material artifacts of a bygone time, however, not necessarily bygone ideas.
When the Stevenson University Public History Program visited Eastern State on November 10, 2017, the museum went out of their way to accommodate our request to tour the facility as public history "insiders." We wanted to hear not only what other visitors might hear, but also to hear about curatorial, museum education, and ethical issues as well. The museum provided a one-hour tour of the museum, followed by a one hour "curator's talk" with Annie Anderson, Manager, Research and Public Programming, as well as Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation and Public Programming. This allowed our intrepid group of Public History majors the opportunity to learn about the prison, its exhibits, and the curatorial and educational planning that went into them.
Caption: The prison, when opened in 1829, was the first in the US designed to incorporate a "hub and spoke system."
As we began our group tour, we found ourselves entering a long corridor containing cells along either wall for as far as they eye could see. It was within these cells that convicts lived their silent, solitary lives guarded by men whose shoes were muffled by wool socks.
Caption: The cell-lined corridors that formed the "spokes" of the prison. They were built of stone and lined with plaster.
The cells were small. Like the corridors, the cells were lined with a generous coating of plaster, featured a food "hatch" from the corridor side, and a prisoner entryway in its rear. Far above the cell's ceiling skylights provided ambient light. Designed not for punishment, but, instead, for reflection, the cells resembled those provided monks in a monastary. Each contained a cot, a storage box, and toilet facilities. In partial proof that punishment was not the aim of a prisoner's solitary confinement, Eastern State cells had running water and electricity installed before those amenities even arrived at the White House.
Caption: A typical cell. Looking from corridor toward the prisoner entry door at the rear of the cell.
The corridors, or cell blocks, radiated out as spokes from a central "hub." From that hub, jailers could view all activity in the prison's corridors from a single location. This was such an efficient approach to security that it would be replicated in over 300 other prisons.
Caption: View from the "hub" looking down the corridors of three cell blocks.
One of the most visited locations in the museum is Al Capone's former cell. Imprisoned for a short period at Eastern State on a weapons charge, his arrest provided an alibi that protected him from prosecution in the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. His cell is one of the few locations where an effort has been made to restore the cell and recreate the environment in which Capone lived while at the penitentiary.
Caption: Capone's cell as it may have looked when he was incarcerated at Eastern state. (Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Museum.)
Today, Al Capone's cell is interpreted with signage and curated with materials as described from the period.
Caption: Al Capone's cell as interpreted today. Stevenson PHIST major Jessica Miller poses outside the cell.
Once the tour of the prison's interior ended, we were led out to the field that provided an area for prisoners to exercise and play baseball within the prison's grounds. There, we were introduced to how the museum ties the past to today: the "Big Graph." This outdoor sculpture, 16 feet high and weighing 3,500 lbs, portrays a statistical understanding of over 100 years of incarceration in the US. It serves as a starting place for conversations about the effectiveness of mass incarceration in our country today. Various sides of the sculpture provide visitors information about incarceration rates for over 100 years, the racial composition of our prisoners, as well as how our rate of incarceration compares to that of foreign countries. As one contemplates the different sides of the sculpture the tour becomes something other than learning about the past. Instead, one is called upon to reflect upon the present in light of the past. Importantly, this takes place within the shadows of a 30 foot wall and within direct sight of several former guard towers.
Caption: "The Big Graph." Statistics regarding over 100 years of US incarceration rates are represented in this outdoor exhibit.
Now in a frame of mind to consider current policy in light of past practice, we entered the award winning exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration. In the words of the museum's web site, "It elicits personal connections to recent historic changes in the U.S. criminal justice system, encourages reflection, supports dialogue, and suggests steps that visitors can take to help shape the evolution of the American criminal justice system moving forward." The exhibit serves as a complement to the "Big Graph" and a series of monthly lectures (the Searchlight Series) that addresses topics associated with "crime, justice, and the American prison system."
Caption: Part of the award winning Prisons Today exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary)
Having toured the museum and learned about its past, having learned how that specific history took place within the larger context of US social and penal policy, having applied that new found knowledge to the question of current penal practices today, we were ready to talk to the museum professionals who developed, planned, and executed the museum we had just experienced. This was for us the highlight of the visit. The "curator's talk."
Caption: Annie Anderson and Sean Kelley of Eastern State talk with our tour group and provide a professional's take on their museum's design.
Our talk with Annie and Sean of Eastern State was marvelous! Far reaching, insightful, and grounded in hard won experience, their observations were so important for our public history majors to hear. Whether the topic was funding, the necessity to get board members " on board" with plans, program development, or curatorial issues, Annie and Sean provided a textbook overview of functions necessary to operating a venue for public history. An outstanding portion of our discussion centered on the ethics involved in dealing with the stories of former inmates and guards. Similarly, we learned about the ethics of using former inmates as docents in light of the traumatic events they might be recalling on a daily basis. We discussed the ongoing conversation at the museum that examines the ethics of telling an important story using those who were there, and the thin line that separates it from exploitation of individuals and their lived experiences. It was so very important that our majors learn that ethics considerations are ongoing, need to be reconsidered as societal expectations evolve, and, in the end, lead to a stronger program.
Caption: Although unheated, our docent, Tori, held us on the edge of bench as she related stories about the history of the prison. (Tori-- good luck on your Master's in Public History!!!)
It is experiences like this that define Stevenson's Public History program. Can the history of a prison be learned in class? Yes. Can questions of ethics be discussed in class? Yes. What cannot be taught in class is how it feels emotionally to be at a place, how a cell feels, or what a guard sees from a position in "the Hub" while surveilling a prison. The proximity and context of the exhibits spark conversations that cannot easily be reproduced in a classroom. The sound of cavernous silence and the smell of an institution are not easily transported. Stevenson's Public History Program believes classroom work is necessary and crucial to a major's education, but is only preparation for an actual experience. This field trip exemplifies the Stevenson Way.