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I have lived
in the neighborhood just outside the walls of Eastern
State Penitentiary for nearly twenty years. In its current condition
this place is mysterious and beautiful, but I have often wondered what
it looked like during all of the different eras when it served as an active
I began planning
these sculptures by studying historic photographs, written descriptions
and oral histories by the people who remember this institution. Some of
my questions about life at Eastern State could not be answered, so I made
conjectures based on the clothing, furniture, and routines common at the
work I hope to offer a glimpse of the emotional experiences and mundane
routines of daily life within the walls of this prison – and to
find a shared humanity with the men and women who resided here.
the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house,
a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain
dropped between him and the living world...” - Charles Dickens,
describing Eastern State Penitentiary, American Notes, 1843.
were allowed to remove these hoods only when in their cells or exercise
yards. The hoods were intended to prevent communication, keep the prisoners’
identity secret and keep the design of the prison a mystery. The hoods
were probably not used consistently, and they were officially discontinued
several public scandals throughout the history of Eastern State Penitentiary.
An 1834 investigation described severe mistreatment of the prisoners.
It also described “Quilting Parties,” illegal gatherings of
prisoners and staff, during which food and alcoholic beverages were served.
Mrs. Blundin, wife of one of the penitentiary Overseers, allegedly organized
several of these events.
found that Prisoner Number 100, an African-American woman named Ann Hinson,
played the fiddle while guests danced. Several employees lost their jobs
following the scandal, but Warden Samuel Wood remained. It is not known
if the inmates involved were punished.
type of work assigned to prisoners changed throughout the prison’s
history. Work assignments in the late 1800s included textiles, cigar making,
chair caning and shoemaking (seen here). By this time the penitentiary’s
system of separate confinement was nearly abandoned, and many prisoners
shared cells. Inmates were sometimes allowed to have pets, such as rabbits,
birds or cats.
period, the prison was an enormously popular tourist destination. There
were about 10,000 visitors a year, including celebrities, families, and
State’s officers and administrators used solitary confinement (often
in a dark windowless room, with reduced rations) as a punishment for uncooperative
or violent prisoners throughout the prison’s history. In the early
decades, the prisoner’s own cell was darkened by covering the skylight.
Administrators later built special punishment cells, called “The
Hole,” or “Klondike.” They became a prison inside the
confinement, reduced rations, and exposure to extreme light and darkness
are still used to punish rule-breakers in many modern prisons.
at Five Years Old
number of children grew up inside Eastern State Penitentiary. Elsie Hough,
the daughter of Warden Robert McKenty, moved here in 1906 when she was
five years old. She played on the prison grounds and was friendly with
many of the prisoners. She commented that she never felt afraid, explaining,
“they were just like people to me.”
hosted 250 guests in the Warden’s quarters for Elsie’s wedding
in 1921. She and her husband lived in the front Administration Building,
and she gave birth to her first son here in 1922.
were important to almost everyone who lived and worked at the penitentiary,
and they were celebrated in many different ways throughout the history
of the prison. Dozens of photographs in the historic site archives show
festive decorations in the dining halls, cellblocks, and offices –
and the warm smiles of both staff and inmates. Many prisoners later recalled
that the holidays also brought a sense of regret or loss.
spite of the order and discipline that prevailed at most times, Eastern
State Penitentiary could be a dangerous and violent place. There are many
accounts of struggles between inmates, as well as between inmates and
prison staff. There were numerous escape attempts, and riots where hostages
were taken, mattresses burned and chairs smashed. Several officers and
numerous inmates were killed in violent confrontations during Eastern
State’s long history.
the time that the first prisoners entered Eastern State in 1829, the noise
and bustle of construction work was an ongoing fact of life. New cellblocks
and support buildings were added to the original complex, and exercise
yards were converted into dining halls and workshops.
were assigned to demolition, refitting, rebuilding and maintenance crews.
Some used skills acquired earlier in life, but many inmates were trained
on the job. Eastern State housed prisoners for nearly 150 years; some
areas of this prison were built and rebuilt many times.
the early 20th century, many prison officials grew to believe that art,
music and recreation programs could have a beneficial effect on prisoners.
The prison began hosting vaudeville shows and concerts by opera singers
in the Recreation Room. Prisoners received music lessons on a variety
of instruments, and some even played together in organized bands. The
accomplishments of these musicians eventually became a source of pride
for the entire institution.
the 1950s and 1960s, as newer prisons opened, Eastern State’s inmate
population aged dramatically. Although still a maximum-security prison,
Eastern State became known as a relatively low-key institution. Warden
William Banmiller made a controversial decision in the late 1950s, allowing
television sets in the cellblock corridors. Inmates gathered on small
stools and watched sets propped on high shelves. (One of these shelves
can still be seen in a cell at Eastern State.)
inmates left Eastern State Penitentiary in 1970.
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