Wolf takes Friends to Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary, a Quaker-inspired prison opened in 1829, will be the topic at Newtown Meeting adult class on Court Street on Sunday, October 8 at 9:45am, followed by meeting for worship based on expectant silence from 11:00 am to 12 noon.  

 Using archival photographs, Newtown Meeting member, Tony Wolf, will explain how early reformers attempted to replace harsh punishment with rehabilitation. 

Most early American prisons were large holding pens where petty thieves, murderers, women, children and men were thrown together behind locked gates.  Physical punishment and mutilation were common. 

In 1787 a group of prominent citizens, including many Quakers, met at the home of Benjamin Franklin to voice their concern over prison conditions and to demand more humane treatment of criminals.  It took the group 30 years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to authorize construction of the world’s first true penitentiary.

The very name “penitentiary” suggested its new philosophy of reform and penitence, rather than the prevailing preference for physical punishment.  With its humane principles and radical design, Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became the most famous prison in the world. 

Believing that “there is God in every person,” Quaker founders proposed a system of solitary confinement to allow the prisoner to reflect and repent.   Each inmate was housed in his own individual cell with running water, a toilet and a workbench beneath a tiny skylight referred to as the “eye of God.”  Behind each cell was a private exercise yard where the inmate could spend one hour daily in solitary activity.

As visitors flocked to ESP to marvel at its architecture and learn of its new approach, critics debated the use of solitary confinement.  On his visit in 1842, Charles Dickens condemned the system as rigid, hopeless and cruel.  He claimed that “this tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be worse than any torture of the body.”  He called Eastern State a “most dreadful, fearful place.”

The critics prevailed and the “Pennsylvania system” was abandoned in favor of the congregate system in use today.  The good intentions of the founders had led to cruelty and abuse 

In operation for 142 years, this prison was decrepit and beyond repair when the state closed it in 1971.  Historians and preservationists successfully managed to restore the site as a “stabilized ruin” and it has been open for educational tours since 1994.  It is now one of Philadelphia’s most popular historic sites.

As a sociology professor, Wolf took over 3,000 students to visit Eastern State Penitentiary.  In their study of crime, rehabilitation and justice, students went behind the walls, entered the tiny cells, saw the death row and learned stories of real prisoners.

The most memorable experience for many students was to enter a cold, damp cell and have the iron gate slam behind them, even for just a few minutes.  The purpose of the visits, according to Wolf, was to provoke questions about rehabilitation and justice.

At Sunday’s talk, Wolf will show old photographs and drawings to illustrate the original design and the actual day-to-day working of the penitentiary.  He will explain how the Quaker belief in the inherent good of all people, even criminals, continues to inspire prison reform.

Tony Wolf was a longtime professor at Bucks County Community College, where he received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.  He earned his degrees from the London School of Economics and LaSalle University.  Before beginning his teaching career at Bucks, Wolf served two years in India with the Peace Corps.

Newtown Friends Meeting. co-founded by “Peaceable Kingdom” painter and Quaker 

minister, Edward Hicks, in 1815 is open to all who wish to attend. Regular First Day 

Education classes (Sunday School) for all ages begin at 9:45 a.m. and Meeting for 

Worship begins at 11 a.m. Childcare is provided. 

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