Traipsing through hallways that once housed thieves, murderers and fraudsters was not Veronica Stivala’s idea of fun. Yet, she found her trip to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia surprisingly satisfying...
Going to prison, even if you know that you will be let out on your own free will, is never really anyone’s idea of fun, or entertainment for that matter.
In fact, I must admit that I initially went on this ‘tourist outing’ to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia with more than an ounce of reluctance and, dare I say it, dread.
I went there because my travel buddy, who I shall henceforth refer to as Bob, was keen on visiting. Yet, surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip to the city.
The Eastern State Penitentiary, also known as ESP, is a former American prison.
It dates back to the 18th century age of reform following the American Revolution.
The new nation aspired to change its public institutions profoundly and to set an example for the world in social development.
Every type of institution that we are familiar with today – educational, medical and governmental – was revolutionised in these years by the rational and humanistic principles of the Enlightenment.
Of all of the radical innovations born in this era, American democracy was the most influential. The second major intellectual export was prison design and reform.
The tour of the (now defunct) ESP takes the form of an audio guide on an iPod, with the voice of actor Steve Buscemi.
While scouting a location for a film, Buscemi visited the ESP and found the building so interesting that he later provided the majority of the narration.
The audio guide also includes the voices of three former wardens and 25 guards and inmates, creating an intimate walking tour of the cell blocks and yards.
One of the main messages behind this tour is to give visitors an insight into not only the history behind the erection of this penitentiary establishment, but also into the lives of its prisoners.
Visitors are encouraged to actually enter some of the cells, left open and practically in the same condition they would have been when they housed prisoners.
The prison also offers the option of having a cell unlocked specially for you so you can have a look around.
The ESP was the brainchild of well-known and powerful Philadelphians, including Benjamin Franklin.
The idea was to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in a criminal’s heart.
The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a programme.
The ESP broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment.
It opened in 1829, became the most expensive American building of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world.
The penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change.
The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labour.
The early system was strict.
To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells.
As visitors walk through the prison hallways they can view a miniature model of the how the prisoner would be hooded, brought in through a yard, which would also be his exercise area and locked in his cell.
I found this model helpful to gain a better perspective of how things worked.
The system of solitary confinement at Eastern State did not so much collapse as erode away over the decades.
I was also impressed by the number of personnel available throughout the prison tour.
They were positioned in prime locations, to offer help or more information about the prison and its cells.
The most impressive cell is by far Al Capone’s. It is probably the most luxurious cell to have ever existed, possibly in an even better condition than some people’s living rooms, with Oriental rugs, fine furniture, and a cabinet radio.
The story behind why he originally went to prison is also interesting: arrested at a movie theatre for gun possession, some claim this was fixed by Capone himself to avoid retaliation for the St Valentine’s Day massacre.
Others stated he was doing this to appease his peers in other cities in order to remove the government’s spotlight on organised crime.
I must concede that I chanced upon Capone’s cell thanks to Bob, who has better sightseeing stamina that I do.
Al Capone’s cell is probably the most luxurious to have ever existed – possibly in better condition than some people’s living rooms – with Oriental rugs, fine furniture and a cabinet radio
You see, while the audio recording guides you through the main areas of the prison, it then leaves you to explore the many more cells and sections of the detention centre on your own (though there are audio explanations for this too).
I had opted to chill in the conveniently set up, well, chilling room.
Complete with air-conditioning, a phone charging station, Wi-Fi, sofas and reading material, this room was an ingenious idea for the weary traveller in need of a little recharge.
Bob continued to explore and came across this gem of a discovery.
On the note of amenities, my only gripe is the toilets, which took the form of outdoor portable loos.
They were clean but I would have preferred proper ones.
Perhaps the set-up of the building does not allow for this? I do not know.
The prison closed in 1971. In 1980 the city of Philadelphia bought the site with the aim of reusing or developing it. However, in 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the ESP Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994.
A new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001.
While my stance on visiting prisons still does not include elation or glee, and I would still rather be taken to a chocolate factory, I enjoyed this visit and was left feeling enlightened because the tour takes a psychological, philosophical, humane and historical approach to this famous prison.
The tour ended with an art installation called The Big Graph, which provided much food for thought.
The 16-foot tall, 3,500-pound plate steel sculpture illustrates three sets of statistics.
From the south, it illustrates the unprecedented growth in US incarceration rates since 1900.
From the north it illustrates the racial breakdown of the American prison population in 1970 and today.
From the east, The Big Graph charts every nation in the world, both by rate of incarceration and by policies around capital punishment.
The US imprisons 2.2 million citizens, the highest incarceration rate in the world, by far, and yet has no national prison museum.
Now, the ESP is introducing public dialogue around issues of crime, justice and the changing face of the US’s criminal justice system.