So Why Visit an 1836 Prison?

April 27, 2020
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia


Describing one of the exhibits — the — Click to view the full-sized image

Usually when folks take a weekend away they tend toward the exotic or skiing or a beach or a spa.  When I told friends we were going to Philadelphia for the weekend to see Eastern State Penitentiary, I got some “why-would-you-want-to-do -that looks” and then explained the history of this particular prison and its significance. Not one had ever heard of Eastern State Penitentiary.

However, it is no wonder that Eastern State Penitentiary was the 2017 overall winner of the Excellence in Exhibitions Award from the American Alliance of Museums.  The public dialogue that this prison has introduced around issues of crime, justice, and our incarceration system is crucial to our future.

Located within walking distance of the heart of Philadelphia and its plethora of museums along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world.  It was supposedly the world’s first true ‘penitentiary,’ a prison designed to inspire remorse and regret in its prisoners when it was built around 1840.

The light from the skylight is visible at the back of this image – Click to view the full-sized image

Built of stone, the prison had single cells that were vaulted and sky-lit with a window in the ceiling; each wase designed to hold just one prisoner.  Each cell also had access to a small outdoor enclosed yard that was also just for that cell, and each prisoner was allowed outside at a different time each day but never at the same time as their neighboring cellmate since communication among inmates was discouraged.

The cells were linear out from a central hub, the center hub was where the guards were situated so they could see down each corridor and could supervise each spoke of this wheel-like design.

Eastern State Penitentiary was known for its grand architecture as well as its strict discipline, but today is described as a “suspended ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers.”

The building itself had running water and central heat, amenities even the White House lacked at the time.  It attracted visitors from around the world, and one of the exhibits shows pictures of other prisons modeled on this design.

Many of America’s most notorious criminals were imprisoned here, including Al Capone and bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton.  In fact, one of the cells on the tour is refurbished as the way it was supposed to have been when Capone was an inmate and is quite lush compared to the refurbished examples of other cells.

Most of the cells remain untouched and will stay that way due to the cost of renovating the whole prison, though some cells are used for current art installations and one has a short film about a tunnel dug as an escape route.

The mission of Eastern State Penitentiary is to “interpret the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.”  And they do this quite well.  The admission price includes a self-guided audio tour

Throughout the prison complex, there are also “Hands-On History” interactive experiences, which are short demonstrations led by a tour guide.  Examples are the kitchen, the infirmary, the renovated synagogue, or the greenhouse,

Two exhibits specifically focus on incarceration issues and are extremely well done.  The first includes a video summarizing criminal justice policy decisions going back to the 1960s and their effect on increases in mass incarcerations.  There even is a table with literature about prison reform and forms to register to vote!

The other astounding exhibit is outdoors and features bar graph steel sculptures at the edge of a former playing field. The sculpture illustrates the unprecedented growth in incarceration rates in the United States since 1900, the racial breakdown of the American prison population in 1970 and today, and the rate of incarceration and capital punishment of every nation of the world.

Both of these exhibits highlight how the United States leads the world in having the highest rate of incarceration, with some 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail.

Changes in laws, policing, and sentencing have led to this increase in incarceration – it is not that people are misbehaving more today than in the past.  Unfortunately, the poor and the disenfranchised have been more affected by these changes and are incarcerated at higher rates than other populations.  The exhibits exemplify the failure of previous policies and suggest changes that could make a difference, giving the visitor an opportunity to weigh in on restitution options and other programs.

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