Quotable Pennsylvania: State Institutions

Many Pennsylvanians’ lives have been shaped by prisons, poor houses, asylums, and the myraid other institutions that are operated by the state. The quotes collected here capture the perspectives of the people who actually lived in these places and expose the hardships and struggles they faced while incarcerated, institutionalized, or as a ward of the state.

Historically, state institutions have a complicated legacy in Pennsylvania. On the one hand, the state has been at the forefront in reforming these facilities and their operation. Take for example Eastern State Penitentiary, founded to replace the terrible gaols and dungeons of the past and provide actual rehabilitation. But its “Pennsylvania” system was frequently criticized and even called a place of “horrible despair” by Charles Dickens. Likewise, Pennsylvania was one of the first to begin operating state-run mental hospitals in the early 1850s, giving all residents a chance for treatment and care, not just those who could afford it. But over the years the system was plagued by overcrowding, neglect, rampant abuse, that made names like Byberry and Pennhurst synonymous with pain and suffering. Pennsylvania’s institutions don’t belong on the good or evil poles of history, they’re on a constantly sliding scale.

The experiences people have had in Pennsylvania’s prisons also inspired them to respond with love, compassion, and a reforming zeal that has improved lives far beyond the state’s borders. Just look at the work organizations like the Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Arc of Pennsylvania have done.

Recommended Listening: “Stay Woke” by Meek Mill (formerly incarcerated at SCI Chester) and “This is Not My Home” by The Lady Lifers. [Note: this song is performed by women incarcerated at the state prison at Muncy, PA. Brenda Baker, the lead singer of the group, tragically died just a few years after this recording was made while serving close to thirty years in prison without hope of parole. She is the subject of the last quote by Jamie Silvonek.]

Lady Lifers
Members of the Lady Lifers at a 2016 performance at SCI Chester. TEDx

“No state in Christendom has done more for civilization than Pennsylvania. Its public institutions of every kind, its schools, hospitals, asylums, penitentiaries, its liberal and wise legislation have attracted the attention of all nations. Official, and voluntary visitors, come here to inspect our social condition, and that enlightened policy which fosters progress, and they speak their gratification in every known tongue. No political or sectarian influences have ever yet been obtruded, to limit or divert the law-making power of our Commonwealth from this true Christian policy. The Inspectors earnestly invoke that ‘Great Spirit’ who rules the affairs of men, and has been manifested in an eminent manner in the history of Pennsylvania, so to guide legislative wisdom, that this Commonwealth may continue to enlighten the nations, both by its teachings and its acts.

It can be truly said of Pennsylvania that her public eleemosynary, scientific and penal establishments are the result of labors of her citizens, cheerfully offered for the common good of mankind. Protect them from the ruthless hand of innovation, which is powerful only when directed by ignorance, malice, or mischief.”

-Inspectors of the Eastern State Penitentiary, 1864
“35th Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,” page 23-24

“Benevolent citizens of your commonwealth were the first of civilized people to establish a society for alleviating the miseries of prisons; shall Pennsylvanians be last and least in manifesting sensibility to the wants of the poverty-stricken maniac? Is the claim of the Lunatic less than that of the Criminal?”

-Dorthea L. Dix, 1845
Memorial soliciting a state hospital for the insane : submitted to the Legislature of Pennsylvania, February 3, 1845

“Thus day succeeds night, and night succeeds day, in the ceaseless struggle of hope and discouragement, of life and death, amid the externally placid tenor of my Pennsylvania nightmare.”

-Alexander Berkman, 1912 (talking about his incarceration at Western State Penitentiary)
“Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” page 135

Alexander Berkman
Alexander Berkman, c. 1912. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.

“One thing I would like to set at rest is the report that I went into jail to dodge something. If I wanted to go to jail, I certainly wouldn’t pick one in Pennsylvania. I would have looked around for one where there were more conveniences.”

-Al Capone, 1930
“Three Al Capone Henchmen Slain in Chicago Saloon,” The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, April 21, 1930

“The great State of Pennsylvania should hang its head in shame in permitting a sane man to remain in a hospital for the criminally insane for over ten years after he regained his sanity.”

-Judge J. Lewis, 1955 (commenting on the illegal incarceration of Henry Louis Ross in Farview State Hospital
“Comth. Ex. Rel. Ross v Dye,” page 488

Farview 10
A patient ward at Farview State Hospital, c. 1920. Pennsylvania State Archives.

“Here in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, life without parole means certain death unless a compassionate governor grants you commutation, the laws change or you are able trump the bureaucratic, unreasonable, morally bankrupt and emotionally indifferent appeals courts, including the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme courts. Generally, your sentence sticks like thighs to leather on a summer day in Central Pennsylvania, regardless of how unjust it is, as most sentences are.”

-Jamie Silvonek, 2018
“Brenda Died in Prison, But We Lifers, Long-termers Will Keep Her Legacy Alive” (Juvenile Justice Information Exchange)


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