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.
Vegetation along with two feet of slag and other debris soaked up water like a sponge and held it on the roof.
View of the roof after the removal of the plants and degraded roofing material.
Contractors install rubber-membrane roof, May 2014
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).

Preservation Progress

The rehabilitation of the Cellblock 15 roof continues in the spring 2014. Demolition of the old, degraded roofing material has already taken place. Contractors are currently installing a new rubber-membrane surface. They will also fix the damaged drainage system so water won’t pool on this new roof. Although visitors on the ground touring Death Row will not be able to see the new roof, they will benefit from the restoration since they will no longer be subject to a constant overhead drip.

This project is supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

We are also grateful to the many donors and members who supported this project by contributing more than $36,500 to the 2011 Annual Appeal. These gifts provided the match for the state grant. Eastern State’s 2013 Halloween fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls, provided additional funding.