Monday, June 25, 2012

The Executioner's Garden

Despite a gruesome history, some beautiful things are flourishing at Philly's Eastern State Penitentiary.

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Mai...
Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Main gate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the more popular and peculiar historic landmarks of Philadelphia is Eastern State Penitentiary. Best known as a residence for Chicago mobster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton, the prison holds architectural significance for its unorthodox "wagon-wheel" or hub-and-spoke design, which is comprised of cell wings radiating out from a center tower from where the prison could be kept under strict surveillance.

The design, initiated by British born architect John Haviland, was completed in 1839 and was considered to be a highly innovative approach to incarceration. The methodology, termed the Separate System, embodied a belief that inmates could be successfully rehabilitated if they were kept in isolation and made to consider their crimes and bad behaviors. Its overall Gothic style is said to have been used to instill a sense of spirituality, as if being in a church.

But Eastern State also includes a nightmarish history of torture and suffering. According to the web description, "guards and counselors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, including dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called "The Hole", an underground cell block dug under cell block 14, where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks."

Yellow irises adorn Eastern Pen's perimeter.
Roses amid the ruins.

It intrigues me somewhat to see the multitudes of people - families with youngsters - flocking to the landmark for annual events such as the upcoming Storming of the Bastille reenactment, which is billed as a "lighthearted" look at the fierce actions that took place during that event, or the more famous draw, Terror Behind the Walls, which takes place in the fall. And recently there was even an installation built that recreated a cell block at Guantanamo Bay for public display.

What is the real value of all this? I'm not quite sure, frankly. Is there a meaningful take-away, a lesson to be learned? Or is it just voyeuristic fascination with human suffering, the same human compulsion that makes slasher movies become blockbusters? If that's the case, the colossal fortress is too big in both size and design significance simply to be Philly's side show or house of horrors.

Garden beneath the tower.
Yet there is something truly beautiful happening at this monster of a structure which has the potential of being part of a greater good. On the long terraces that flank the front of the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site, located on Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian and 22nd Streets, a healthy stretch of woody shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials thrives. The garden provides seasonal interest year-round and serves as habitat for birds, bees, and butterflies.

Occasionally the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society organizes maintenance events along the 8,000 square foot stretch, in which volunteer gardeners engage in planting, pruning, weeding, and watering.

The flower blossoms and flourishing plant life make for a stark juxtaposition against the reminders of the prison's ominous past. This is revelatory - it could be Eastern State's final act of rehabilitation, its own penitence. With some creative placemaking, we could convert it to a thriving, multipurpose public green space similar to the Reading Viaduct Project, while allowing it to still retain its historical significance. We could free it from its ambiguous ghastliness, its ghostliness, and restore its original spirit of rehabilitation by utilizing its vast open spaces to enlighten the community about urban ecosystems, sustainable cities, civic engagement, and, ultimately, hope for humanity.--D.A. DeMers.


By The Numbers: The U.S.'s Growing For-Profit Detention Industry

By Suevon Lee, ProPublica.

The growth of the private detention industry has long been a subject of scrutiny. A recent eight-part series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune chronicled how more than half of Louisiana’s 40,000 inmates are housed in prisons run by sheriffs or private companies as part of a broader financial incentive scheme. The detention business goes beyond just criminal prisoners.

As a Huffington Post investigation pointed out last month, nearly half of all immigrant detainees are now held in privately run detention facilities. Just this week, the New York Times delved into lax oversight at industrial-sized but privately run halfway houses in New Jersey.

We’ve taken a look at some of the numbers associated with the billion-dollar and wide-ranging for-profit detention industry—and the two companies that dominate the market:    READ MORE


Next at designer in exile: We're queued with a compelling chat with acclaimed Dutch painting duo "Haas and Hahn" as they near completion of their North Philly project for Mural Arts. Plus, see our interview with ECA Program Manager Zachary Popkin about Rain Check, Philly's innovative residential stormwater program, at our sister site Home Science.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. They've been trying to figure out what to do with Eastern State for years. It's hard to imagine how they could have even taken it down, because of those thick stone walls. The exhibits are worth seeing. The history and Al Capone's cell is cool stuff. But I could see how adding some things like a farmers market would be good. Much of the space is vacant, and it sits right in the heart of a thriving Philly neighborhood.

    Michael T.

  2. Thanks for the comment. And since posting this, we've been reminded of the variety of experiences going on at the Pen. Thus, we've set up a special visit to further explore this unique Philadelphia landmark. Also, a special note for clafication: The Friends of Eastern State Penitentiary group is also involved in tending to the pretty gardens around the site. Hats off to all groups involved.