Historic Interiors: A Prison's Colourful Past

Revealing the History of Cell Painting at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia.

Discover the decorative elements created by prisoners during recent conservation investigations.

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) completed in 1829 is considered to be the first penitentiary built in the United States. The penitentiary’s innovative radial plan, designed by English-born architect John Haviland, proved influential on a global scale as an architectural marvel built to instil penitence in the hearts of its inhabitants through solitary confinement. In 2019, during a project to reconstruct a cell interior, conservators discovered evidence of both decorative and pictorial painted finishes that has redefined the understanding of life in prison. Of particular significance are features that closely align with one of the few documented inmate-painted murals that appears in a photograph from the 1930s. This landmark study of paint history at the prison provides a new path for the interpretation of cell interiors and related rehabilitative environments while casting new light on the artwork of the incarcerated.