Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 20th Century

[This October, I am giving nighttime tours at Eastern State Penitentiary. Inspired by the rich and fascinating history of this abandoned prison, I have used approved sources to compile a short series of posts about food practices in the Penitentiary. If you are interested in taking a tour at night, sign up for a VIP Terror Behind the Walls experience. Daytime tours and discussions of this remarkable institution are also available.]

As sentencing laws changed and prison sentences became both longer and more common, overcrowding continued to be a serious problem at the Penitentiary. Over the course of its first century of operation, new multi-story cell blocks were added between the original seven wings; by the 1920s, the Penitentiary contained more than 800 cells, but housed over 1600 inmates who were unevenly grouped, with some inmates enjoying solo occupancy while others shared cells with anywhere from one to six other inmates.

At the same time, many of the original rules and guidelines were relaxed or inconsistently enforced. In the penitentiary’s early days, inmates might not see any faces besides those of the warden and overseer for long periods of time; outside visitors and communication with other inmates or prison staff were not permitted (although, as we know, those rules were not scrupulously followed). By the twentieth century, by necessity, inmates frequently lived together, worked together, and took yard time together. They were permitted visitation and access to places of worship and classrooms onsite. In 1913, a little less than a century after the Penitentiary opened, the system of solitary confinement was officially abandoned and new programs were gradually introduced to regulate the shared spaces.

Though there were certainly benefits to the new congregate system, it proved difficult to manage. In 1923, an extensive investigation uncovered rampant drug use and a dramatic lapse in prison discipline and control. Far from the Prison Society’s ideals of quiet solitude and equal (if ascetic) access to food and comfort, inmate living conditions had become hierarchical and increasingly unsafe. Rules were unevenly enforced across cell blocks; certain inmates gained special privileges as favorites; other inmates organized to facilitate drug smuggling, hooch production, and other lucrative ventures. Younger and newer inmates were vulnerable to abuses of the relaxed rules: some reported being tricked into taking addictive drugs; others were compelled to participate in trafficking (or were trafficked themselves, in a manner of speaking).

The Grand Jury who examined the testimony from this investigation pronounced the prison conditions”beyond belief” and recommended about twenty distinct policy changes to reestablish order and control. One of these recommendations led to the removal of female prisoners, who were not securely separated from the male prisoners and who also participated in the widespread drug and liquor consumption. The 51 female prisoners (and the 2 infants who lived with them) were removed to a single-sex penitentiary upstate. Another recommendation led to the construction of Graterford Prison, the so-called “rural branch” of Eastern State. The idea was to remove all Eastern State inmates to a larger and more secure location further away from the growing city of Philadelphia, but although many Eastern State inmates did indeed transfer to Graterford after it was built in 1929, Eastern State continued to operate as a prison until 1971.

One of the recommendations, interestingly, called for a change in how food was prepared and distributed. At the time of the 1923 Grand Jury report, inmates still took their meals alone in their cells (or in their cells along with one to six other cellmates, as the case may be). The kitchen was still located in the basement of the front building, although by this time it was primarily staffed by inmates. But food quality and distribution was wildly inconsistent: the kitchen staff had a profitable arrangement wherein they set aside the best portions of food for inmates who paid cash at a fixed rate per month or per pan of food. Additionally, food deliveries sometimes made a convenient vehicle for transporting narcotics into the Penitentiary. The Grand Jury proposed a reorganization of the kitchen and staff, and that meals be served to inmates in groups instead of individually, hoping that these changes would improve food quality and eliminate the graft.

So in 1924, the Penitentiary created a cafeteria-style dining hall. Inmates were sent to the serving windows in blocks at designated times, so not all 1600 inmates were had to line up at once. Food was plated up in open kitchens with serving windows and counters for the passing of trays. Inmates would pick up a tray at the counter, carry it to a long table with benches, and dine with their fellow inmates. This system remained in place until the Penitentiary closed.

Having seen the cramped floorplan above, you might well wonder where this cafeteria would fit. The kitchen and bakery were built between cell blocks 4 and 5, the north and northwest blocks on the map. The tray pickup windows were located on the outer wall of each cell block close to where the two blocks converge. In other words, the inmates walked outside to pick up their trays; a roof wasn’t added to cover the alley between cell blocks until the 1960s. Seating was indoors, in long narrow corridors located on either side of the kitchen and bakery. Those spaces were created by knocking down the walls between the original exercise yards of those cell blocks and adding a roof. (Remember that individual exercise yards were no longer strictly necessary, since inmates took yard-out time together.) 

This area of the Penitentiary, known as Soup Alley, is stabilized but in a state of great disrepair; it is only open for viewing with a guide at specific times of day.

These ovens can be seen through the tray pickup windows on either side of the alley; they may have been used for warming and finishing food for serving. (The kitchen proper has more equipment and prep space.)


Soup Alley serving kitchen. Photo by author, 2015.


Soup Alley serving kitchen. Photo by author, 2015.

If you look all the way down this corridor toward the last table and benches, you may get a sense of how narrow these seating halls were.

Soup Alley seating area. Photo by author, 2015.

Soup Alley seating area. Photo by author, 2015.

Comparing this cafeteria arrangement to the food slots of the original construction provides a dramatic illustration of the shift in the Penitentiary’s methods and principles between the 1820s and 1920s.  Instead of hours of unstructured reflection, inmates had regular schedules: mealtimes marked the division between morning work shift, afternoon yard out, and evening return to the cells. Controlled, supervised socialization replaced solitude and silence.

In these particulars, Eastern State was no longer pioneering a new penal philosophy but belatedly falling in line with more widely practiced U.S. prison policies.  By the time the congregate meal system was implemented in response to the kitchen graft at Eastern State, it was already considered a financial and operational necessity in most other prisons. The separate system had never really caught on in the United States, although solitary confinement was regularly implemented as a disciplinary measure.

But Eastern State was built expressly to serve a set of 19th century ideals, and while the original system proved untenable, adapting the site to the twentieth century proved just as challenging.

Johnston, Norman; Finkel, Kenneth; Cohen, Jeffrey A. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994.
Pennsylvania Court of Oyer and Terminer. Supplemental report of the April Grand Jury, Philadelphia County, investigating conditions at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Philadelphia, 1923.

How inmates ate in the 19th century
What inmates ate in the 19th century

Coming up:
What inmates ate in the 20th century

4 responses to “Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 20th Century

  1. Pingback: Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 20th Century | Scenes of Eating·

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  4. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: the reasoning for the seasoning | Scenes of Eating·

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