Death Row, The Last Cellblock Built

Guards and an inmate standing outside of Cellblock 15 c.1959. Oral histories describe the brutalities that occurred in Death Row
A guard demonstrates Death Row's state of the art security c.1959.
A typical Death Row cell measuring 9'x6'6".
Interior of Cellblock 15, 2nd Floor East Side, 2010. Rainwater is slowly destroying this building.
Death Row one day after a major rainstorm. The wet streaks on the facade are evidence of the damage the building is suffering.
2011, $92,500
Status: Underway

Powerful Evidence of Changing Prison Policies in America

The nickname for Cellblock 15, “Death Row,” sends a chill up the spine. Here, several men waited out the last months of their lives.

Death Row was the last cellblock added to Eastern State Penitentiary. It opened in 1959 and it stands in stark contrast to the noble ideals that led to Eastern State’s establishment. The penitentiary’s founders believed that the separate confinement system embodied by Eastern State inspired deep remorse — or penitence — in the hearts of criminals and transformed them ultimately into law-abiding citizens. By the 20th century, however, Eastern State had evolved into a modern prison and viewed some inmates beyond rehabilitation or forgiveness.

Cellblock 15 was primarily a punishment block. It was inhabited by some of Pennsylvania’s most violent, aggressive criminals. Inmates who had rioted, gambled, hurt or killed police officers, guards, or other inmates lived here in physical isolation from each other and the prison staff. Only a handful of men who actually had death sentences were on the block at any given time and no executions ever took place at Eastern State. Inmates awaiting execution were transferred, in their last few days, to Pennsylvania’s only death chamber at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Today, Death Row is a critical stop on the historic tour for Eastern State’s 120,000 annual daytime visitors. This distinctly modern cellblock provides dramatic punctuation to the story of an institution that was once a flagship in the penitentiary movement and defined worldwide standards in prison design, now aging and struggling to adapt to the corrections reforms of the 20th century. Death Row is a powerful springboard for discussions about contemporary issues in prison sentencing and punishment. It will remain a critical tool in describing the history of American prisons at Eastern State for many years to come.

But Cellblock 15 is in trouble. Its roof and drainage system have long failed. Rainwater pools on the flat roof and works its way down through the building, soaking the masonry from the inside and deteriorating the stone and mortar. Alternating freeze and thaw periods only exacerbate these problems. When the trapped water freezes and expands, it cracks both the stones and the mortar. We must put an end to this harmful cycle by installing a new roof and drainage system on Death Row (Cellblock 15).

You can help!

It will take $92,500 to rehabilitate Cellblock 15’s roof and drainage and we have raised $30,000 as of October. This project is part of the next major roofing campaign at Eastern State, addressing six cellblocks targeted for 2012 completion. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has granted Eastern State $1 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds and we must match it dollar for dollar. The proceeds from this year’s appeal will provide the match for the work on Death Row.

Please consider making a direct contribution to correct the roof and drainage issues plaguing Cellblock 15. Give your gift online today.

Increase the power of your donation with a matching gift. Check if your company has a Matching Gift Program.

We deeply appreciate your generosity. Your gift will help us keep Death Row open to visitors and use it to draw connections between Eastern State’s history and the difficult issues that still face us today.

Thank you to the donors and members who have already supported this project!