Eastern State Penitentiary photo

The beautiful rowdy prisoners

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

Eastern State Penitentiary photo
A cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.

It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)

Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.

Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.

This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.

Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.

It didn’t work. It did not reform.

But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.

Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.

What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?

As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:

“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.

This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.

A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.

I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.

Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.

But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.

The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Links to more information on this topic:








Published by

Elaine Olund

I'm a writer, artist and designer who thinks way too much, and tries to see the beauty in the world.

9 thoughts on “The beautiful rowdy prisoners”

  1. So chilling, Elaine. These are questions that we need to all be asking right now. What is going on with our prison system? What is going on with our judicial system? Something is very wrong with such mind-boggling statistics.

    1. Yes, chilling is the word. The rate of incarceration in the US is the highest in the world. By FAR. 730 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, compared to 150/100,000 in Great Britain. And nearly 60% of prisoners are African-American or Latino, far out of proportion to their representative numbers in the population.

  2. Questioning will hopefully bring about change. The poor and minority do not deserve such punishment; It is not rehabilitating to be put in such a cage. Isolation can only breed isolated souls who are bitter and more likely to hurt others as they have been hurt. Great post as always Elaine. Many things to think about.

    1. It’s a stacked deck, this system of ours. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mary Ellen. Awareness and questioning are tiny steps but, I hope, steps towards changing things.

  3. My view as an outsider is that America is still very much set in the way that prison should be a punishment and that taking away someone’s freedom of movement isn’t punishment enough. So you make their lives more difficult in prison than need be. The rationale is “why should I pay for a rpisonner to have a better life than I have, struggling day in day out to survive”. I can hear that argument too.

    But the counter-argument is to wonder, what do we want to achieve with prison? And who do we want to come out of that system? If we want someone who is ready to come back to society and take part in it, then we need to treat the inmates like human beings, with as much respect as we would someone outside. And if we treat them poorly, antagonising them every chance we get, how can we expect happy people to come out of this system? We’re only producing people even more angry as they get out than when they got in. And this isn’t true only in America, it’s true in many other countries.

    I despise the idea that prisons have become an industry in the States. It seems completely aberrant to me. But again, I don’t understand how a society can leave people to wither/die for lack of medical care without feeling the need to change the system, so I realise I can’t expect to understand.

    1. Yes, so true, Dawn. Very little rational sense to many of the US’s systems–the justice system, the healthcare system–so little caring. So much fear and greed– and outright oppression. Money is not the most important thing in life. Plus, our punitive system is wildly expensive. We have created an industry of prisons that wants to be a growth industry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.