The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison turned museum that spotlights the issue of mass incarceration using experiential and contemporary exhibits. By Christopher Zoukis
Prison is a concept that most people rarely give much thought. Throughout history, imprisonment or incarceration was not used as punishment. Instead, prison was simply a place to confine and hold criminals until corporal or capital punishment could be administered. The Bible mentions prisons in Jerusalem. Even the story of Joseph, who most people associate with a “coat of many colors,” relates a tale of imprisonment in Egypt.
The contemporary idea of prison began in Britain, during the 19th century. The city of London gave birth to the first modern prison system. Jeremy Bentham originated the panopticon, a principle of observation and control that is still utilized in prison construction.
Her name was Janie Porter. She was born just as the American Civil War came to a close. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Janie was an exemplary student, eventually graduating with honors from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Janie took her teaching degree seriously, accepting a position in rural Georgia. Five years later, she met and married Harris Barnett, a Virginia businessman.
Disturbed by the plight of African American children, who grew up in squalid conditions, often ending up in jail at the age of 7 or 8, Janie determined to do something about the problem, which she viewed as a moral crisis. She began a fund-raising campaign throughout the state of Virginia. The money was used to build what was then called “a home for wayward girls” – the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls. In today’s world, it would be referred to as a juvenile detention facility.