Eerie Beauty

Eerie Beauty

Up close and personal with Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA.

Photo of ESP by Nanci Hersh

Decay- and Nets at ESP

ESP is a massive historical structure full of haunting beauty, decay- and art, just down the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Recently, I was there for an Artist Orientation to learn more about the prison and opportunities for site specific installations.Photograph of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

Cell Block at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

ESP opened in 1829 and employed a Quaker inspired system of isolation free from distraction. Prisoners were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. It was believed that subjected to this type of treatment; in silence, free from distraction, criminals would have (nothing but) time to reflect on their crimes and become genuinely penitent (the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong; repentance,) hence our nation’s first Penitentiary.

photograph of cell at ESP by Nanci Hersh

Long abandoned cell for reflection and penitence

“It’s vaulted sky-lit cells held many of American’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone”– though when you see his cell at ESP it has been reconstructed illustrating that Capone was privy to many creature comforts in his cell including a writing desk, decorative lamps, area rug and upholstered chair.

There were some powerful art installations on view as well.

Here is one by Philadelphia based artist Cindy Stockton Moore titled Other Absences showing the faces and the stories of many of the victims of the inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary.

photo of installation at ESP by Cindy Stockton Moore, photo by Nanci Hersh

Other Absences by Cindy Stockton Moore, an installation at ESP

Graph on prison population throughout the world at ESP

Graph on prison population throughout the world at ESP

This red graph illustrates the fact that US leads the world prison incarceration rates with #2, China far below us. (and I think that is also probably- a first)

Now, that’s something to reflect on, don’t you think?




  1. liza myers
    March 18, 2015

    Wow Nanci. The building resonates with history, visually and spiritually. I didn’t know that the word penitentiary came from penitent. Duh! And Quakers invented hooded torture? Yikes! I know their intention was isolation. They believe that the Light is within each one of us equally. So depriving the prisoners of outer light they would be forced to confront the inner, and hopefully find guidance. Those were harsh times. But the real gut-socking revelation of your post is the US’s shameful, heartbreaking incarceration record. Thanks for sharing this excellent post.

  2. liza myers
    March 18, 2015

    BTW, my childhood religious training was Quaker, including a Quaker boarding school in Bucks Co. (George School). I’m grateful for the sense of equality, integrity, responsibility and fairness that I gained from that. It’s not easy to live up to.


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