Eastern State Penitentiary

Update: If you’re looking for the Halloween “Terror Behind the Walls” at Eastern State, click here!!

This summer I’m in Philadelphia, staying literally around the corner from the famous Eastern State Penitentiary, discussed by Foucault in Discipline & Punish, pp. 123-126 & 237-239.

Click here for a Google map I made.

Foucault situates the Pennsylvania system within his description of the prison as an institution of discipline with very particular effects. One of the arguments of D&P is that the prison emerged from a set of competing ideas on how punishment would take place, and that it was not a “natural” consequence of a desire for more humanitarian methods. In fact, the prison is better thought of as a whole series of processes of power relations which discipline and mark the body. These power relations serve to alter people–they “correct” them; the prison therefore is not just a place of detention but is a place where people are made into subjects. Readers familiar with Foucault will recognise this as one of his abiding concerns.


Reconstruction of original cell


Condition of the cells today

Part of this apparatus was isolation (p. 236), designed to force the prisoner to reflect upon his crime and to become penitent (hence: penitentiary). The prison in Philadelphia provides the most famous example of this penitent isolation, much more so than the Auburn, NY model which allowed prisoners to interact during the day. Foucault rightly notes (p. 238) the cellular confinement having monastic origins (a related discussion on confession as both juridical and religious penance can be found in History of Sexuality Vol I). The early Philadelphians who developed this model, such as Robert Vaux, were Quakers or influenced by Quaker ideals, including the notion of “that of God in every man” (George Fox), and therefore that solitude could get people more in touch with this inner penitent self.

Today, the penitentiary has been left to deliberately crumble away.

More photos.

One Response

  1. […] Long, awesome summary: History of SexualityFull text of What is an Author?Getting beyond heterotopiaEastern State PenitentiaryIan Hacking on making up peopleExtreme Prejudice: notes on Andrew’s Scull’s TLS review of Foucault’s […]

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