Recollection Tableaux

I have lived in the neighborhood just outside the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary for over twenty years. In its current condition this place is mysterious and beautiful, but I have often wondered what it looked like during all of the different eras when it served as an active penitentiary.

 

I began planning these sculptures by studying historic photographs, written descriptions and oral histories by the people who remember this institution. Some of my questions about life at Eastern State could not be answered, so I made conjectures based on the clothing, furniture, and routines common at the time. Through this work I hope to offer a glimpse of the emotional experiences and mundane routines of daily life within the walls of this prison – and to find a shared humanity with the men and women who resided here.

Installed in Eastern State Penitentiary from 2007-2012. Carved wood, metal, mixed media, paint. Susan Hagen copyright 2007

Hooded Man
Hooded Man

“Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world...” - Charles Dickens, 1843. The prisoners were allowed to remove these hoods only when in their cells or exercise yards. The hoods were intended to prevent communication, keep the prisoners’ identity secret and keep the design of the prison a mystery. The hoods were officially discontinued in 1903.

Quilting Party
Quilting Party

There were several public scandals throughout the history of Eastern State Penitentiary. An 1834 investigation described described “Quilting Parties,” illegal gatherings of prisoners and staff, during which food and alcoholic beverages were served. Mrs. Blundin, wife of one of the penitentiary Overseers, allegedly organized these events. The investigation found that Prisoner Number 100, an African-American woman named Ann Hinson, played the fiddle while guests danced.

TV Watchers
TV Watchers

In the 1950s and 1960s, as newer prisons opened, Eastern State’s inmate population aged dramatically. Although still a maximum-security prison, Eastern State became known as a relatively low-key institution. Warden William Banmiller made a controversial decision in the late 1950s, allowing television sets in the cellblock corridors. Inmates gathered on small stools and watched sets propped on high shelves. (One of these shelves can still be seen in a cell at Eastern State.)

Hooded Man
Hooded Man

“Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world...” - Charles Dickens, 1843. The prisoners were allowed to remove these hoods only when in their cells or exercise yards. The hoods were intended to prevent communication, keep the prisoners’ identity secret and keep the design of the prison a mystery. The hoods were officially discontinued in 1903.

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