But, in 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians (called the Philadelphia Society) convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society’s goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design. He proposed a radical idea: to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart. Not simply to contain criminals. The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program.
Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 and broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world.
Each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.
The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.