When it was opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the U.S. The innovative wagon wheel design was the model for more than 300 prisons around the world, taking its design inspiration and operations from a variety of religions.
The halls of the original wings were designed to have the feel of a church. It’s believed the cell doors were intentionally built small so prisoners would have to bow when entering or exiting their cells. The cells were made with a single glass skylight, representing the eye of God to remind prisoners God was always watching.
To ensure the inmates were properly introspective and focused on their solitary penance, they were hooded whenever they were outside their cells (this was also done so they wouldn’t recognize other prisoners or staff outside once they’d completed their sentence, and to make knowing the layout of the prison harder to prevent escapes)
Even the one hour per day in the individual exercise years attached to each cell was coordinated so no two inmates in neighboring cells would be out at the same time
Initially, the prison was operated under the Pennsylvania Systems, which encouraged separate confinement. The warden was legally required to visit each inmate every day, and overseers were required to see each inmate three times daily
Famed author Charles Dickens visited Eastern State in 1842 and said this about the prison and the solitary confinement method: “I am persuaded that those who designed the system…do not know what they are doing. I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”