Eastern State Penitentiary, Day 1

Last week I started a grand new adventure, one of several that this year is bringing. I had my first taste of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, where I will be on staff as a tour guide for the next few months. After filling out my hiring paperwork, I was sent off to take the standard audio tour of the facility, narrated by Steve Buscemi. I was also armed with a clipboard and some questions to ponder. I’ll use them here as jumping-off points, though I’ve re-ordered them a bit.

What was your first impression of Eastern State Penitentiary?

Well, it’s an imposing facade! The arrow-slits (fake from Day 1, I learned; thanks, Steve Buscemi!) and crenelations stand out from the rest of Fairmount Avenue. Stepping inside when they opened at 10 am I saw they were already doing a bustling trade in the gift shop (the offerings of which included Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City which is a great read and I’m still hoping to write down some of my reactions to it here sometime). Once I’d found my way out into the open space inside those huge walls, I noticed things like brickwork pillboxes added on top of the stone towers and the mark of many modifications over the century and a half of the prison’s existence. Inside the cell blocks, the general aesthetic is of a dilapidated church, or perhaps monastic hallways (depending on which cell block; some are one storey and later blocks have three storeys). Overall, the sheer size of the place is impressive.

Who else is visiting the site at the same time as you? How many people are there? 

Like I said, I entered at the opening bell, so to speak, so I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people visiting Eastern State with me. There were parents and children, mostly, some grandparents and children. There were a few couples or larger groups speaking other languages. There were enough people that we got a bit of a knot-up when it came time for climbing the stairs to the gallery in cell-block 7, but it was not inconveniently crowded.

What interests visitors most? What are some areas or experiences that seem popular?

From the limited sample that I observed, visitors, particularly children, were very taken with the opportunity to enter a restored cell and place themselves in the position of inmate. There were no bars over the doors so entering the cell was not a photo opportunity in the way I’ve seen other historic jails treated; I think there’s just something about looking at the small door from the other side that is powerful for people. I should also note that I think the small skylight in each cell (“the eye of God”) is particularly effective in stirring up existential thoughts. John Haviland, the architect of the place, clearly had a flair for the dramatic. Still, since the purpose of the place was to help criminals dramatically reform themselves, perhaps that flair was called for.

I also was intrigued by a few visitors that wanted to take photos of everything, particularly the cells. This instinct to document for the social media world was encouraged by signage around “Prisons Today,” the newest exhibit, that read “@EasternState” and “#PrisonsToday.” “Prisons Today” was the easily the most “shareable” portion of the campus, full of statistics and posing questions directly to the viewer. Slightly pre-dating “Prison’s Today” but certainly connected to the exhibit is “The Big Graph,” the one bit of the prison for which I felt compelled to unearth my smartphone and snap a pic: 


What are the challenges of interpreting Eastern State?

At any historic site, interpretation must try to connect visitors with a past that they didn’t live, which is tricky, but Eastern State must also connect visitors with a life experience (incarceration) that not only have many visitors not experienced but also actively avoided. I think those are two deep gulfs to cross, but the audio guide and signage (the only interpretation I’ve yet witnessed at Eastern State) do a pretty good job. Most important, as I mentioned above, is the opportunity to enter one of the cells by oneself. By occupying the same space as an incarcerated person from the past one may more easily imagine their experience of the world.

There is one pitfall in which it would be very easy for Eastern State to slip. That would be to take lurid pleasure in the grisliest crimes committed by some of those who were held there and to sensationalize escape attempts; that is, to treat these events as the newspapers of the day might have. Eastern State tells some of these stories, and ghost stories too, because there is a portion of their audience who has been primed for this sort of story. But I think they balance those bits of cartoon villainy and high-wire suspense with the nitty-gritty of daily life in a prison and pose important questions rather than simply titillating their visitors.

What themes or big ideas stick with you after taking the audio guide?

The prison was designed for penitence and rehabilitation. It is unclear to what extent that goal was ever achieved, but given recent research, we can look back at the cells of Eastern State with the knowledge that solitary confinement is not good for humans. Looking at the crumbling plaster and the broken toilet bowls, one wonders how to achieve society’s goals for facilities like these. The Prisons Today exhibit explores the purposes of prisons: punishment, confinement, rehabilitation, and deterrence. The cells at Eastern State certainly confined prisoners for their sentences; the imposing architecture of the exterior perhaps acted as a deterrent. The extent to which prisoners were punished or rehabilitated is unclear.

I was heartened when I heard Representative Paul Ryan, in the Prisons Today montage of politicians talking about incarceration, highlight the idea of redemption. It gave me a boost to hear a politician speak in a way that had hope for the incarcerated in America today. Perhaps the effect of that video was heightened by the generally hopeless aesthetic of the cells I’d just toured.

The prison is a good symbol for the way in which an idealistic vision (if not a particularly good one in hindsight) evolves in response to pragmatic concerns. The latter cell blocks modified Haviland’s vision considerably, eliminating the individual exercise yard and adding extra storeys at the expense of the skylights. In the present, the restoration and preservation of the site is limited, and many of the cells lie in disrepair; there are more pressing concerns, such as the integrity of the roof and walls!

What was the most memorable story or experience you had today?

Several of the art installations will stick in my mind for a while but I think the Prisons Today exhibit was the most memorable. The barrage of statistics, video montage of politicians talking about prison policy, and the belongings of formerly-incarcerated ESPHS employees combined to make a really thought-provoking takeaway.

What could make the visitor experience more successful?

A brief look at the Eastern State Penitentiary Wikipedia page will inform you of the many fundraising drives the site has had to continually rely on simply to stabilize the old building. For that reason, I’m loathe to recommend anything that would entail restoration. However, the audio guide was really quite pleasant and I enjoyed my meanderings with no complaint I can think of. I did find myself wishing, while walking down the hall with audio from the prison’s most recent incarcerated residents, that one of the cells in that hallway were restored to represent the mid-20th century. A major interpretive thread of the site is that it evolved greatly from its origin on the drafting table of Haviland. I’d like to see more of the intermediate steps, especially to accompany such evocative interview material.

Who would you bring to visit the site?

I think lots of different folks could appreciate Eastern State, and many would come away with different factoids or nuggets of wisdom. I plan on bringing my parents to tour it sometime soon!

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