Eastern State Penitentiary was definitely a highlight of our stay in Philadelphia. Built in 1829, Eastern State is considered the world's first penitentiary and was revolutionary when it opened. Centered around Quaker beliefs, its goal was to inspire penitence and religious reform through labor and solitary confinement. According to an 1831 report, "No prisoner is seen by another after he enters the wall. When the years of confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave and the prisoner can go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous misdeeds are unknown."
While Eastern State abandoned the practice of corporal punishment, not everyone considered its practice of isolating prisoners any more humane. Charles Dickens visited the penitentiary in 1842 and wrote, "In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body..."
In 1913 the penitentiary stopped its practice of isolating prisoners and, though the prison was built for 300 prisoners, by the 1920's it was home to 2,000. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1965 and closed officially in 1971.