Rowan University Art Gallery

Abandoned Prisons

Phyllis Kornfeld

Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America

This photographic exhibition pairs two artists:

Eric Kunsman & Corrie McCluskey who have documented the now empty, but charged and haunting spaces and cells of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA and Alcatraz Penitentiary in San Francisco, CA. Both of these penitentiaries were based on new ideals in prison reform and social planning that sought to treat the root causes of crime rather than focusing solely on the physical imprisonment of convicted felons. It was thought, at the time, that the imposition of strict discipline and solitary confinement on the prisoners, within a very controlled environment, would bring about penance and refinement, almost a renunciation of their former bad ways. Reform was considered better, in the long run, than straight punishment. Solitary confinement became a well-known tool in this regard as it was thought that the day-to-day socializing with other undisciplined prisoners would impede this behavior modification process.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Photographed by Eric Kunsman

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), now located in the heart of Philadelphia, opened in 1829 on 10 acres of farmland as the largest public building of its period. Its unique radial design was experimental at the time and was consequently exported around the globe as a model of prison architecture for over 300 facilities. The prison was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, closed down in 1971, and is currently managed by the ESP Historic Site, Inc. The sprawling prison combined Gothic architecture to portray a space that was a fortress, walled city and castle, complete with stone turrets and a tower in one imposing structure. ESP was the first prison to utilize solitary confinement and silence as a tool for penal reform in the quest to convert crime through reflection, religion, and redemption.

Eric Kunsman holds a BA in Fine Arts and a BA in Science from the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as a MA in Science from RIT and a MA in Fine Arts from the University of the Arts. He has taught and exhibited widely in the United States. For more information on his work, please visit

Alcatraz Penitentiary

Photographed by Corrie McCluskey

 Named after the Spanish word for pelicans, Alcatraz (The Rock) opened in 1934 as a federal prison, built to hold the toughest criminals in America. Its location, on a twelve-acre rocky island in San Francisco Bay, was originally home to an indigenous Indian population, a Civil War fort, a military prison, and a lighthouse. Alcatraz closed down in 1963. Like ESP, Alcatraz was known for its avocation of reform over punishment through the tools of silence and solitary confinement. It was built to be escape-proof through its location in the middle of a bay that churned with cold water and dangerous currents. It implemented a policy of isolation in terms of banning newspapers, radios, and allowing only related visitors once a month. Prisoners, under a rule of silence, were locked in their cells 14 hours a day, 7 days a week with no reward for good behavior.

Corrie McCluskey has exhibited extensively in the United States and in Europe over the past ten years. Her work focuses on a sense of place, memory, the passage of time, and the traces of presence that can be felt in empty or abandoned spaces. Her work can be found at