When Sherman went to prison

This afternoon my wife, daughter, nephew, and niece toured Taliesin West, the Scottsdale campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where Wright set up shop for the winter months in the 1930s through his death. I’ll have some things to say about it in a post I want to write, and it reminded me of another time my family went visiting an historic site, about a decade ago. It wasn’t technically a school but its history had lots of connections with the history of school reform, and I ended up behind bars. So, a re-run of a post from July 2006:

Well, this last week I did something unusual on a vacation. I went to prison…

Sherman Dorn behind bars


Yes, I went to prison—Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, to be exact.

Eastern State Penitentiary, external view, May 2006

When I was a graduate student, the prison was an abandoned site and has since been in the process of reconstruction. When originally opened in 1829, it was one of the models of the new penal-reform movement, with isolated cells…

reconstructed hallway in Eastern State Penitentiary
… and inside the one-person chambers ….

bed in reconstructed cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
… one could find the things that prisoners would do to focus their mind on repentance and rehabilitation:

table in reconstructed cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
As many social historians have documented, this rehabilitative ideal quickly deteriorated, and Eastern State eventually became a mass warehouse, with long hallways in the cell blocks…

hallway in Eastern State Penitentiary, May 2006
… and where the cells were no longer just for one person and where, if you were really lucky, you had two skylights instead of one.

cell ceiling in Eastern State Penitentiary, May 2006
And so one should not be too surprised that the great move for rehabilitative prisons (perhaps best known through Jeremy Bentham’s work, or maybe Foucault’s arguments about Bentham) ended up being far from rehabilitative. I only visited for an hour or two…

Sherman Dorn behind another set of bars at Eastern State Penitentiary

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