Crime and Penitence

Art Illuminates History at Eastern State Penitentiary

PHILADELPHIA-A decaying fortress looms over the Fairmount neighborhood, four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the nations’s most infamous yet influential prisons. In use from 1829 to 1970, it stands as a monument to a long line of failed penological experiments.

The Gothic facade was meant to awe and frighten. British architect John Haviland came from a design tradition where a prison had two purposes: to confine felons, of course, but also to keep law-abiding citizens outside on the straight and narrow.

But once you pass through the entrance’s iron gates and step into the cellblock corridors, the effect is strangely uplifting. Although the structure is in decay—visitors must wear hard hats and sign liability waivers—its high, vaulted ceilings and skylights recall the grandeur of a once-great cathedral.

The religious imagery is no accident. When it came time for Philadelphia to build a new prison in the early 19th century, the reform-minded Quakers were a huge influence. They believed that solitary reflection would bring out a criminal's inner goodness. If prisoners were treated kindly (flogging and mutilation had been the era’s prevailing modes of punishment) and kept away from contaminating influences, redemption would be the probable outcome.

The original design for eastern State included seven cellblocks radiating from a central rotunda. This made it easier to monitor prisoners and guards alike.

Each convict was housed in a sort of kennel—an 8-by12-foor cell with a private, high-walled exercise area. Prisoners on good behavior could exercise twice a day. Upon arrival, however, they would be confined to their cells for a couple of days, forbidden to do anything or to see anyone. If this time passed without incident, convicts would be allowed a Bible, occassional visits from the clergy, and work like cobbling or chair caning to do in their cells. The thinking was that after such isolation even the laziest sinners would be begging for religion and productive work.

What the administrators didn’t predict were the numbers of prisoners driven mad by solitary confinement. After only a few years, an entire cellblock was converted into a makeshift insane asylum.

An ambitious art exhibit, Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject, explores this and other problems faced by the incarcerated. Organizers Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens selected 17 artists from around the country to create 14 art installations within Eastern State’s walls.

Mental illness and isolation are portrayed in Cellbock 10 (over time, six more cellblocks had been added to the original seven on the 11-acre facility.) “Overtones,” by Carolyn Healy and John Phillips combine recorded moans with haunting abstractions.

While “Overtones” works off the prison’s gloomy decay, the three cells replastered by Winifred Lutz have an airy feel. The casual visitor to Eastern State might think that all prisoners were thrown into decrepit dungeons. But entering the middle cell of Lutz’s “Serving Time,” you get a hint of what the founders were aiming for. The austere white interior, the gold leaf surrounding the skylight, the repetitive and prayerlike writing on the wall, even the echo produced within the chamber all add up to a holy mood. You almost believe that a few modifications to the Philadelphia System of solitary confinement could have made the theory workable.

Not long after opening, Eastern State had too many prisoners and too little money to continue in its original vision. By necessity if not design, it gradually adopted the Auburn System of congregate prisons.

These human warehouses are evoked in “Why Malcolm Had to Read,” a collaboration by Homer Jackson and Mogauwane Mahloele, with John Abner, Richard Jordan, and Lloyd Lawrence. This piece occupies a whole cellblock and brings together an overwhelming variety of images and a raucous soundtrack. The intentionally chaotic result is a little uneven but mostly effective. Take the time to read the plaques outside each cell. They relate brief but telling incidents of prison life.

One of the most moving works lies behind a chain-link fence. The cell contains only funeral flowers and a red satin cross on a made-up bed. Much of the back wall has crumbled, putting the outside world within easy reach. We’re reminded that there is more than one way to escape from prison.

Malcolm Cochran’s “Soliloquy” also speaks of the desire for freedom. One cell holds a shaving mirror where a video of a woman arranging her long, dark hair is projected. Next door, a rope of dark hair snakes up through the skylight, over the courtyard and out, out, out over the prison’s 30-foot wall. You can imagine apparitions of former prisoners sliding down its length, finally free.

Karen Peacock
Legal Times