Brian Schoenauer: A Look Inside Eastern State Penitentiary




Photography and Text by Brian Schoenauer, Copyright 2016




The Eastern State Penitentiary opened on October 25th 1829. At the time of its completion it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever created. The Eastern State Penitentiary would become a model for prisons worldwide. It’s system of incarceration encouraged separate confinement and rehabilitation. Up until the mid 1800’s, systems of incarceration emphasized physical punishment in environments where inmates were forced to work together in complete silence.


The floor plan of the building resembles the spokes of a wheel with each cell block stemming out from the center of the structure. The Gothic architecture was used by architect John Haviland to install fear into those who thought of committing a crime. Gargoyles at the front gates of the prison create an ominous and dark atmosphere. The cells themselves featured small doors which minimized the chance of attacks from inmates. In every cell there was a single glass skylight that reminded prisons or the world and life outside the prison. The yard at the center of the prison features a baseball backstop and football goalposts used by inmates during free time.




Eastern State was declared a national historic landmark in 1965. In 1988, the city of Philadelphia decided to stop pursuing development of the prison – and in 1994 the prison opened to the public for tours. The cells of notorious criminals, like Al Capone and Willie Sutton, have been recreated in the prison.


Additionally, inmate art is featured in various cells. Inmates, drawing on personal experience in prison, use art to reflect on the ways in which incarceration has changed them. The beautiful ruins, guided audio tours and exhibits at Eastern State draw close to 220,000 visitors every year. Personally, I found the long corridors, gothic architecture, and broken down structures as incredible artistic opportunity to reflect on the alarming way inmates have been – and are – treated in U.S. prison systems.



About The Author: Brian Schoenaeur is a senior enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2017. Brian is also a running back on the Penn football team. To read additional articles by Brian Schoenaeur, go here


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