Philly’s Amazing Penitentiary

Eastern State 2Without a doubt the most provocative place I visited on my recent summer sojourn to the East Coast was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Sitting like a medieval fortress in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood, the stone-walled penitentiary, which accepted its first inmates in 1829, is a photographer’s dream of linear perspective, a history buff’s playground of provocative social themes, an archaeological ruin par excellence, and an absolute must see for anyone who cares about cities and urban policy. It was also, no doubt, a full on nightmare for the prisoners kept there, especially toward the end of its 142-year operating run, when the idealism of the patrician reformers who drove its initial construction had long since faded.

Beyond all this, however, Eastern State is also home to The Big Eastern State DisplayGraph, an outdoor public history exhibit that aspires to provoke “public dialogue around crime, justice, and the changing face of our criminal justice system. ”  (See www. On my visit the graph did a remarkable job of fulfilling just this mission, with our earnest, gentle tour guide leading a politically diverse group of twenty or so prison visitors through a series of tough questions.  “How many of you knew the US incarceration rate has grown this much?” (Just look at the photo of the Big Graph and consider that the short red column in the middle represents the incarceration rate in the 1970s while the tall red column at right represents the incarceration rate today.)  “Do you have any ideas about what might be different in other countries with lower incarceration rates?” (Apparently to find a country with a lower incarceration rate you could twirl a globe and pick any country besides this one. According to the Big Graph the US  incarceration of more than 700 per 100,000 is the highest in the world by a country mile.)  Perhaps most provocative of the guide’s questions was the most open-ended, “What is the purpose of prison?”

I’ll leave that last question for you to ponder. Personally though, the Big Graph and the whole Eastern State Penitentiary experience made me think again about a fascinating, unique book on criminal justice policy. The book is David Kennedy’s 2011 Don’t Shoot, and it contains a feverishly written, highly detailed argument about what it takes to reduce violence in the very most violent of American streets and neighborhoods. Kennedy truly believes he knows how to make cities safe for the young, largely black and Latino men most likely to get killed – and jailed – in urban America. He’s largely convinced me, and I’ll see if I can convince you in a future post.