Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Conversation with Sean Kelley – Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation. This is Part 1 of our conversation, and these remarkable stories continue in Part 2.
Note from Wayne Parker, Host of the StoriesHere podcast. “Many years ago while working for the State of California, the newly created SolarCal office, I made an official visit to San Quentin prison with a number of state prison officials. San Quentin is a maximum security prison and we toured the entire facility, including the death chamber. The goal at the time was to see if prisoners could be involved in helping produce solar panels in the state. After the tour we met in Warden George Sumner‘s office, and he was very emotional, saying ‘you have to give me something for them to do’.
That story relates to Eastern State, and the mindset of people left continually in solitary confinement with nothing to do.
Here’s a bit of history of Eastern States that’s discussed in the episode:
“A group of prominent Americans were horrified by the conditions in the jails. They met, just after the American Revolution, in the home of Benjamin Franklin. They had a great 18th century name for their organization: “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” and they were the first prison reform group in the world. They believed convicts needed time alone—in silence, to rediscover their good nature. The early prison reformers saw solitary confinement, not as a punishment, but an as opportunity for reflection. A chance to become penitent.”
….but they were wrong, at least in the way Eastern State was built and operated:
“There is but one step between the prisoner and insanity.” Inmate James Morton
Senator and POW John McCain – “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Charles Dickens – “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body”.
As Hawthorne relates, Dickens visited several prisoners, including one who was about to be released after two years in solitary confinement. Dickens remarked to his guide that “they trembled very much.”
Charles Dickens wrote that the two sites in the United States he most wanted to see were “The falls at Niagara” and the Eastern State Penitentiary.