From east to west across Middle America, travelers pass at least a dozen high-security state and federal prisons in close proximity to Route 66 and other modern major thoroughfares. You see them from America’s highways…their lighted compounds and glistening fences constant reminders of justice inaction. In Oklahoma, highway signs warn travelers that “Hitch-hikers may be escaping INMATES.”
Philadelphia is no exception to the reminders of America’s love affair with incarceration. One afternoon, while contemplating the birth of our nation’s democracy in contrast to the current political atmosphere under Orange Julius Caesar, we came face to face with a city bus at an intersection. Most of the city’s buses are wrapped with some form of advertising to promote city-area destinations, businesses, or other Philadelphia highlights.
The bus blocking the street was no different, except for the shame of its advertisement. The bus featured a so-called tourist attraction in northeast Philly that stood in stark contrast to the rest of downtown’s historic sites that celebrated independence, rights, arts, and the natural progress that comes with nation building.
Prison bars adorned the side of the bus with ads beckoning sightseers to visit Eastern State Penitentiary — Pennsylvania’s oldest prison and a bastion of early correctional torture in America. Eastern State was at one time, the most expensive and famous prison in the world. The French writer and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the place during his 1830’s tour of America.
Designed as a new concept prison employing complete isolation and solitude, Eastern State drew Tocqueville’s criticism for its lack of socialization. Guards locked prisoners in dark and rudimentary single occupancy cells from their arrival until the completion of their sentences. The total isolation and a daily regime of enforced solitude prevented prisoners from any socialization skills — even among themselves.
As sociologists and psychologists are learning in the modern era of correctional rehabilitation, solitary confinement is one of the most damaging mental and emotional elements of imprisonment. In America, solitary confinement has been used as a punitive measure for men, women, and children for over 200 years. The irreparable damage done by America’s prisons over the past two centuries has led to millions of broken families and individuals — exacerbating and compounding the injuries and torts of every crime.
And in Philadelphia — the city of “Brotherly Love” that has been more damaged by a flawed criminal justice system, rampant prosecutorial misconduct, and racially and socially motivated imprisonment — they want you to come visit the torture chambers of Eastern State Penitentiary.
The old prison should be razed to the ground instead. There is no celebration or enjoyment for visiting a place with no historical value except for the ruination of lives. Eastern State is America’s equivalent of a Nazi Germany concentration camp. While it is important to recognize the lessons of history, there is a fine line between historical tourism and morbid glamorization. In its current state, America’s criminal justice system produces more morbid fascination than learning.
Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died at Eastern State. Inhumane treatment and conditions contributed to disease, mental illness, and antithetical rehabilitative measures. Additionally, Eastern State, as the early model for prisons, gave rise to torture chambers in other states around the nation — the ones seen today from historic Route 66 and other byways. The severity of the isolation and the correctional paradigm promoted by the so-called “Pennsylvania System” also helped launch America’s love affair with mass incarceration.
Crime and punishment are higher functioning problems than those solved with brute force, torturous confinement, and subhuman treatment. Though our nation has evolved for 240 years from Constitution Hall to the complex democracy it is today, we have failed to grasp the human knowledge and understanding necessary to confront criminal activity and rehabilitation as social problems and mental conditions. In the past century, we launched men and women into space, developed alternative fuels, and learned to transplant human organs, but we still try to rehabilitate the accused with 1800’s methods.
Politicians continue to pump money into pork-barrel prison projects that promote mass incarceration principles, anti-socialization, and fear mongering, while ignoring the need for progressive treatment and solutions to crime. Whether it is Eastern State, Sing-Sing, Joliet, or Alcatraz, there is no cause for celebrating a failed system that has not kept pace with the rest of society’s advancements.