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Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary was built in the 1820s, inspired by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and Quaker beliefs in solitary reflection and penitence. This compelling and scholarly documentary, illustrated with period lithographs, engravings, and photographs, gives a detailed history of the prison from its initial practices of solitary confinement, through its transformation into an overcrowded "Big House," to its replacement with a modern facility in 1970. Although distinctive in its original design, Eastern's history illuminates two centuries of debate about the purposes and practices of prisons in American society.

The growth of prisons has always mirrored the growth of class and racial/ethnic tensions in U.S. society. This documentary places the development of the prison, as an American institution, in that social and political context. It raises serious questions about the effectiveness of prisons and about the recent expansion of the U.S. prison system. Eastern State Penitentiary serves as a provocative introduction to contemporary prison issues.

This video has been broadcast on Public Television and is used in many classrooms. Recommended for use in Criminal Justice Studies, Social Problems, or U.S. History courses. It is suitable and accessible for a general audience. The Teaching Guide offers background information and additional sources for presenting it and related prison issues in a college or high school classroom.

Text on race and ethnicity from Strangers in our Midst, an exhibition at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, 1997/1998. Researched and Written by Paul Eisenhauer, William J. Johnston, Jr. and Jennifer Lawrence.

Running time 53 minutes; DVD color/B&W