The Quaker Prison Experiment

Eastern State Penitentiary

More than 150 years before the basement of the Stanford Psychology department was transformed into a den of psychological torture, Quaker ‘reformers’ in Philadelphia pioneered techniques of incarceration that are still practiced (in the darkest corners of humanity) today. Most people today associate Quakers with pacifism, motor oil, and that friendly looking guy on the oatmeal container. However, John Haviland and friends created a big house of horrors which was so distressing that inmates frequently went insane.

The imposing prison looks like a gloomy fortress on this appropriately overcast day.

A historical marker to the Pennsylvania system of penology.

The original idea was to cut the prisoners off from all human contact. Interaction with guards or other prisoners was forbidden, and prisoners were originally held in solitary cells with only a small trap door to receive food. Prisoners were referred to by numbers and were completely covered in a cloth garment (de-identified) when outside of their cells.

The idea was that prisoners would have nothing else to do but reflect on their misdeeds and become penitent. After a few days, they were given a bible, but had no other books and no communication with anyone else. The only words they heard were from crazed preachers who would roam the halls ranting about fire and brimstone.

A restored cell with period objects.

One of the major design innovations was the radial plan that allowed guards to observe all corridors from a central location, although prisoners were not able to see anything around them.

Signs of life. This tree managed to escape into the fresh air outside. Most of the prison is dilapidated and un-restored. There were many plants reclaiming the space.

A commemorative plaque to soldiers who served in WWI, listing them by number. Even the guards did not know the prisoners' actual names. After some time, the rising prison populations and other changes forced the prison to abandon some of the original design features. Prisoners started being housed two to a cell and some of the restrictions on communication were lifted.

Al Capone’s cell, re-created. The Chicago gangster received special treatment during his yearlong stay. The furniture is obviously not standard issue and Capone was allowed to have a record player.

Ivy outside the prison walls. To be fair, before Eastern State Penitentiary and its many imitators, convicts were usually thrown together in crowed jails with no privacy and considerable risk of unfortunate interactions with other prisoners.

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