Philadelphia, PA; The Eastern State Penitentiary Hospital and Laboratory Wards for the imprisoned. There were laboratories, medical teams and operating rooms. All of the prison walls are decomposing, and the health facilities haven't been used since the prison stopped accepting prisoners in 1971. Having a population over the years of 75,000 prisoners, there was bound to be illnesses and the prison provided for that with a hospital ward. The first two female prisoners, Amy Rogers (No. 73) and Henrietta Johnson (No. 74), arrived at Eastern State on April 30, 1831—less than two years after Eastern State opened. Both women were sentenced for manslaughter. Early on, women lived on the gallery of Cellblock 7. Later, they inhabited Cellblock 2. Though kept separate, male and female prisoners sometimes made contact.

  • Image 1 of 13

Incarceration and Entropy: Eastern State Penitentiary

Collette Fournier | Pennsylvania, United States

Organization: Collette Fournier Photography, Kamoinge Inc.

The Eastern State Penitentiary Prison is a story about one of the original prisons built on the east coast of the United States. It housed all kinds of male prisoners from 1836 - 1971. It did house a few women prisoners. 

The original prison was built in 1822- 1836 on a radial plan by John Haviland. Linking solitude with moral and vocational instruction, it exemplified the Pennsylvania System of penology and became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide. Photographing this subject matter became an exercise in Entropy, a science that literally shows deterioration over time.

About 75,000 inmates passed through the Philadelphia prison from 1829 until it closed in 1971.

“The perimeter walls are 30 feet tall. They hide what’s going on inside, so people had forgotten the history of it, what it represented, the early period of the country. They didn’t realize it was built for prison reform. It’s a powerful building,” The prison closed in 1971.

Photographing this subject matter became an exercise in Entropy, a science that literally shows deterioration over time.

Photographer’s Statement

I found it interesting how I came upon this project. My local camera shop in New Jersey sponsored a bus trip to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, thus I signed up for the tour. They also promised to gift participants an 11” x 14” matt print if we submitted a digital file after the session. I had toured the museum briefly while at a NABJ or NPPA photographer’s conference in Philadelphia a few years previous.

I thought it would be great to shoot black and white negative film with my medium format Mamiya and color digital files with my Canon EOS 7D. I remembered some areas of the prison were quite dark, so I knew I had to use a tripod. I had recently donated my very heavy tripod to the Photo Department where I teach and had to borrow a tripod from a colleague. I must have photographed the prison for about 4-5 hours taking a brief break for lunch. It was so fascinating to explore as much of the prison taking note not to let other photographers get into my scene.

I thought the strongest images were of the prison cells with years of tree roots growing inside and just a little light streaming in from a window above, Al Capone’s luxurious cell, and the textured, rusted, locked door of a Synagogue.

I must admit the atmosphere was very toxic and I came down with a sinus infection the following day. I was so excited by the documentation that I doubt anything could have discouraged me from staying as long as I did! It was more than a museum, it was a history of incarcerated people’s lives and I could feel their presence.

Collette Fournier



252 No. Main St. Studio G-18

Spring Valley, NY 10977

Content loading...

Make Comment/View Comments