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World's Most Influential Prison: Success or Failure?

NCJ Number
Prison Journal Volume: 84 Issue: 4 Dated: December 2004 Pages: 20S-40S
Norman Johnston
Date Published
December 2004
21 pages
This article traces the history and worldwide influence of the distinctive inmate housing and the unique architecture of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, and the value of its contribution to corrections is assessed.
On what had been a cherry orchard, construction of the prison, commonly known as Cherry Hill even abroad, was begun in May 1822, and the original seven wings were completed in 1836. Until that time, no effort had been made to design quarters for 24-hour single occupancy of large numbers of inmates. John Haviland, the architect, provided a cell flush toilet years before they were even available in the White House, and central heating was used in the prison even before the U.S. Capital or the British Houses of Parliament had it. Eastern State Penitentiary used cutting edge technology that permitted a housing design in which the inmate could be maintained in a single cell without having to leave it. The large cells were 8 feet wide and from 12 to 16 feet long, most with an attached exercise yard. The prison design was geared to insulate inmates from the corrupting influence of fellow inmates while giving them solitude to reflect on their crimes, become accepting of moral guidance through appropriate reading, and adopt regular work habits and skills through vocational training. Word of the new prison philosophy and architectural design that facilitated its implementation not only reached other U.S. States, but was also touted in other countries. Although the extent of inmate isolation promoted at Cherry Hill was abandoned under later correctional philosophies, at the time it was built it remedied many of the intractable ills of the prisons it displaced, namely, prison disorder and the exploitation and corruption that was implicit in congregate housing. Inmate riots and disorders were rare under the system of separate cells. 9 figures, 10 notes, and 9 references