Students in Dr. Judith Giesberg’s History of Nineteenth Century Reform class visited Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) on May 1, 2008. Students in this seminar examined the historiography of nineteenth century reform movements, including prison reform, transcendentalism, anti-prostitution, temperance, abolitionism, marriage reform, women’s suffrage, sex reform, and child-rescue. ESP opened in 1829 in response to lobbying by the Quaker-run Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first prison reform group in the world, in an effort to relieve the overcrowded and unregulated conditions of existing prison facilities. The facility was dedicated to the idea that through solitary confinement, prisoners could be reformed. The idea, referred to as the Pennsylvania System, caught on, and Philadelphia became a destination for reformers from around the world who came to observe the redemptive work underway at ESP. Our study of prison reformers, in particular, underscored how very few Americans still believe in the ambitious idea that criminals can -- and should -- be saved.
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