Architecture of Solitary Confinement

A Case Study of Eastern State Penitentiary: 1821-1877

Master’s dissertation at Cambridge University: Department of Art History & Architecture



The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975


Video Presentation

A summary of this dissertation research, delivered on April 23rd. View presentation slides.



500 words

The central question facing prison design is: What purpose does prison serve? To pain the prisoner, lead them to self-reflection, or equip them with job skills to re-enter society? Society’s response to this question informs the prison’s design and appearance.

Prison Floor Plan in 1836

After defining prison’s purpose – be that a mixture of punishment or rehabilitation – what architectural form best reflects this purpose? There is a moral, religious, economic, and political agenda embedded in prison design. Given the diversity of design responses, this research focuses on one case study: Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (in operation 1829-1971).

Why this prison? This was one of America’s oldest (begun 1821), largest (from 400-1500 inmates), most expensive ($552,000 initial construction cost), and one of the first prisons to confine every prisoner in absolute solitary confinement (until officially ending in 1913).

Four themes offer an analytical lens for this case study.

  • Historical: This building emerged from the efforts of Quakers, merchants, and civic leaders in the Philadelphia Prison Society. Their observations of disease, existing prisons, and the justice system shaped their innovations in prison design. The architecture spoke to their belief that the loneliness of confinement architectures would lead prisoners to self-examination and change.
  • Architectural: This arrangement with hundreds of individual cells radiating from a central observation tower allowed a few guards to observe hundreds of prisoners. Architecture allowed guards to communicate with and observe prisoners but prevented prisoners from communicating with each other. Analysis of this geography of incarceration will reveal how architecture regulated communication and observation.

FOLLOW THE MONEY! Click image for full size flow chart.

  • Educational: This prison architecture reflected the educational agenda and intentions of the people who built it. There are two aspects of this theme.
    • Religion: The external appearance and internal configuration should inspire remorse in prisoners and visitors. The strategic use of medieval ornament on the castle exterior, the interior corridors that evoked a medieval cathedral, and the solitary cells modeled on monasteries reflected builders’ interpretation of historic precedents.
    • Solitary Labor: Cells and surveillance areas were designed to extract labor from prisoners. The prison administration used architecture as a tool to control and observe individual prisoners at work. Labor was intended to be both profitable to the institution and educational to the prisoners.
  • Institutional: This prison design fits into larger debates on how architecture shapes human behavior. Jeremy Bentham proposed in 1787 that a utopian society was possible through a “perfect” circular prison called the panopticon (a building resembling Eastern State). Michel Foucault proposed in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison that Bentham’s panopticon symbolized the modern and dystopian surveillance state. Eastern State is, therefore, a case study to critique Bentham and Foucault’s theories of surveillance and institutional power. This analysis of architecture and solitary confinement will situate and ground Bentham and Foucault’s theories in a case study.


Eastern State drawn as a castle from Old Europe

Each of four themes comprises one chapter in this dissertation. The debates surrounding solitary confinement are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago, as America continues to grapple with problems in prison design.


Click here to read draft of dissertation.

Opens in new window as PDF file.



This project would have been impossible without the support of my supervisor at Cambridge, Max Sternberg, and the commitment of my parents to put me through graduate school.


Three Related Digital Humanities Projects


Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibition on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil



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