Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Eastern State Penitentiary

Al Capone's cell
Al Capone's digs are not representative of the typical cell in Eastern State Penitentiary. Rumor has it he was hiding out in the Philadelphia prison because some serious gang wars were going on in his Chicagoland home. This high-profile inmate enjoyed a comfy bed, secretary desk, phonograph, and a homey rug in his domain on cellblock 9. Today's visitors get to see a representation of this cushy cell when they tour Eastern StatePenitentiary at 22nd and Fairmount Streets.

We spent a fascinating afternoon exploring the grounds, first with an audio tour narrated by Boardwalk Empire's own "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and then on our own punching numbers into the audio gadget player. The nine cellblocks radiate out from the center administration area like spokes on a wheel. We got to see where the hospital, kitchen, baseball diamond, and barbershop were, along with typical cells. Actual voices of inmates and guards makes this tour even more fascinating and realistic. The penitentiary opened in 1829, taking over for the Walnut Street Prison mentioned in my earlier blog about Washington Square. The penitentiary wasn't closed until 1971, so some of the young guys from then are able to offer reminiscences now.

Cellblock 7 was the first double-decker cellblock.
When the prison first opened in 1829, it was serious about the root of the word penitentiary. Inmates were expected not only to live in silence, but they rarely even saw another person. They were fed through a small door on the main hall and let out to "exercise" in a small private yard attached to their cell, and even smaller than their living space. They were expected to meditate on their crimes and come out better people. The one skylight in their cell was nicknamed "The Eye of God." The austere exterior of the thirty-foot prison wall was designed to look like a Gothic-style church with turrets and thin, pointed windows that didn't actually go through to the other side. (How could they--the wall is twelve feet thick!) Get the idea? The was a place to repent.

A typical cell, now in ruins.
Charles Dickens visited the famous penitentiary in 1842 and wrote about it in his American Notes. The two places he wanted to visit in the U.S. were Niagara Falls and Eastern State, but he was disappointed by the penitentiary. He thought the treatment prisoners were subjected to was harsh: "The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."

Eventually, these strict rules were relaxed when prison experts realized this was not the best way to reform criminals. (Although, I expect it would have worked on me.) Rules were relaxed and criminals were eventually given jobs to do together, taught trades, and given the opportunity to participate in sports.
The more recent resident of this cell was taught how to be a shoemaker.

Just before we were sprung, we were treated to a few surprises: a short movie about the famous jailbreak of 1945 and an artist's installation featuring a collection of bugs found inside the walls of the penitentiary. We didn't know what to expect from "ESP" but we found it to be a fascinating, photogenic ruin rich with stories and maybe a few ghosts.

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