Contradictions of Solitary Confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary
MPhil dissertation at Cambridge University: Department of Art History & Architecture
View of Cellblocks and Guard Tower
Eastern State Penitentiary Guard Tower
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
Prison Floor Plan in 1836
In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.
I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.
Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for animation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.
360° Panoramic View from Guard Tower
Virtual Reality Computer Model
Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.
When visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his 1831 report to the French government on the state of American prisons:
This Penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe. 
This penitentiary was, at its 1829 opening, the most expensive and largest structure ever built in the United States. Costing $432,000, this building covered a square area 670 feet to a side with walls 30-feet-high by 12-feet-thick and 23-feet-deep at the foundations. Inside, there was: “an entire seclusion of convicts from society and from one another, as that, during the period of their confinement, no one shall see or hear, or be seen or heard by any human being, except the jailor.” About 400 prisoners were equipped with running water, steam heating, individual exercise yards, and (later) gas lighting. These were “luxuries” that newspapers claimed not even the city’s wealthiest citizens could afford, and in an era when the U.S. White House lacked internal plumbing. The Register of Pennsylvania described in February 1830:
The rooms are larger, viz. containing more cubic feet of air, or space, than a great number of the apartments occupied by industrious mechanics in our city; and if we consider that two or more of the latter frequently work or sleep in the same chamber, they have much less room than will be allotted to the convicts [who live one to a room and] whose cells, moreover will be more perfectly ventilated than many of the largest apartments of our opulent citizens.
Given the modern standards of service, technology, and location of this prison, it seems an odd choice to employ the external appearance of a medieval castle. American society lacked the medieval heritage of “old Europe.” The external castle appearance looked to history, while the internal facilities and technology all spoke of a modern future. Robin Evans explained the frequent use of castle imagery as follows: “It was the idea of the prison, not the fact of the prison, that was to engage the architect’s imagination, and the idea of the prison was built up from historical associations.”
Of the several thousand visitors, tourists, and school children who passed through this attraction and the millions more who merely saw it from a distance, the imposing castle appearance was inescapable. In 1866, 76,000 visited, a large number considering more people visited as tourists than as prisoners. In this same era: “The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium, followed each other in quick succession in these missions; and the printed official reports was subsequently issued, accompanied as they were by illustrative drawings, spread through Europe the fame of what was then generally regarded as a remarkable example of reform.” Architect John Haviland (1792-1852) – known to contemporaries as the “jailor to the world” – was a neo-classical architect by training and designed few other Gothic buildings over his 40-year career. He intended these medieval battlements, narrow-slit windows, and portcullis gates to “strike fear into those who passed,” an instructive lesson to those contemplating a career in crime. Unexpected still is the fact that half the $432,000 construction cost was spent on the semi-decorative perimeter wall and external ornament, features not linked to reforming felons within and, in fact, invisible to the felons. Yet, according to de Tocqueville, “It is of all prisons that which requires least a high enclosing wall, because each prisoner is isolated in his cell, which he never leaves.” Why were Philadelphia’s political leaders and prison reformers so concerned with keeping up appearances?
This essay will present reasons for employing medieval imagery. Through analyzing the secular, cultural, and political reasons for this choice of style, we can understand the moral and educational agenda embedded in Eastern State’s appearance. By analyzing the appearance and practice of solitary confinement taken here from 1829 to 1877, we can, by extension, understand more about the hundreds of radial prisons derived from Eastern State.
I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.
 Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.  W. Roscoe, “Prison Discipline: Letter II,” National Gazette and Literary Register, 20 September 1827. From the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Historical Newspapers Collection.  Richard E. Greenwood, “Nomination form for Eastern State Penitentiary,” United States National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000680 (accessed 25 January 2020). This is the application submitted to protect this prison as a listed structure.  Samuel Hazard, “Description of the Eastern Penitentiary of Penn’a,” The Register of Pennsylvania: devoted to the preservation of facts and documents and every other kind of useful information respecting the state of Pennsylvania 5, no. 7, 13 February 1830, 105.  Robin Evans, “The Model Prison,” in The Fabrication of Virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840 (Cambridge University Press: 1982): 382-83.  Jeffrey A. Cohen, David G. Cornelius, et al., “Construction and Alterations, 1822-65,” Eastern State Penitentiary: Historic Structures Report (Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force, 1994): 88.  “County Prisons,” in The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline 10, no. 2 (Philadelphia, 1855): 60.  Norman B. Johnston, “John Haviland, Jailor to the World,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 101-05, doi:10.2307/988164.  John Haviland (author) and Hugh Bridgport (artist), The builder’s assistant containing the five orders of architecture, selected from the best specimens of the Greek and Roman (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1818-1821).  Julie Nicoletta, “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses and the Reform Movement in Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, no. 3 (2003): 374, doi:10.2307/3592519.  Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.  1829: prison opened. 1877: prison significantly expanded and operations restructured. “Timeline,” Eastern State Penitentiary, https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline (accessed 25 January 2020).
3D Floor Plan
Floor Plan Showing Extent of Vision from Central Guard Tower
Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.
This lecture is in two parts. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.
To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think,
without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
Below is my animation. Click here to view the panopticon in virtual reality. Click here to download and edit this model (requires software). This model is open source and free to download.
c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham
The panopticon in theory vs. the panopticon in (virtual) reality
Central to Bentham’s proposed building is a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them literally maps onto the building’s design. The panopticon, quite literally, becomes a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations.
Spatial diagram of power relations
Obstructed view from ground floor
To his credit, Bentham recognizes that an inspector on the ground floor cannot possibly see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposes that a covered inspection gallery be erected for every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addresses the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he creates a new problem: From no central point would it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center is not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill.
Panopticon panorama from guard’s point of view
Section showing each guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s walking circuit
The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might allow inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claims this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.
Rotunda with blinds closed
Rotunda with blinds opened
Bentham’s suggestion is problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claims that all inmates and activities are immediately visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham writes.
View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY
View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY
Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been deeply flawed were it built. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate how constant surveillance was not possible. It is, therefore, no surprise that the English parliament and public rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s utopian project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate how Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.