Have you ever stood around at a tourist attraction and thought to yourself, “well, thank God for these crowds, they’re really enriching this experience”? I’m guessing not, as ideally having a place to yourself would be the way we’d see everything. Philadelphia’s East State Penitentiary may be the exception to this. Looking through a set of rusty gates down one of its unrestored cell blocks, trying to decide whether or not it was more Shining or Blair Witch, I was glad I could remove myself from the audio tour and general creepiness by simply taking off my headphones and rejoining the crowd around me.
Philadelphia is arguably one of the most significantly historic cities in the United States. The problem with the most famous attractions: Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’s house, and the Liberty Bell are in a word boring. You stand in line, see an old artifact, and learn nothing Wikipedia couldn’t have taught you all while being jostled by the crowds. None of these places has ever made me say, “wow, that’s so much better in person.” I would have been content with a picture.
I was in Philly this past weekend for a family fun trip, and convinced them that in lieu of the zoo (which I actually think is pretty great), we should tour the Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve been wanting to see the inside of this building for a long time, and luckily my father, who is somewhat of a Mob Trivia connoisseur would much rather see the cell that housed Al Capone than the rhinoceros exhibit. I do a lot of historical reading and research and am generally drawn towards subjects of a macabre or darker nature so have seen both videos and pictures of the East State Penn. Pictures don’t do this place justice; it’s like being inside every stereotypical movie prison or insane asylum (probably because a large majority of them were modeled after it), minus the notion that something’s going to jump out at you at any time…..at least in the daytime when I went.
For those of you unaware of its existence, the Eastern State Penitentiary, a former American prison situated in the Fairmont region of Philadelphia, was fully functional between 1829 until 1971. It’s considered the world’s first penitentiary, focused more on reform and penance rather than punishment. The East State Penn is located in what’s often dubbed the museum district, just a few blocks from the Art Museum with its famed Rocky steps, the Franklin Institute, and the Fairmont Park f boathouses. We drove because we were lazy (and maybe a little hungover) but if it’s a nice day and you have some time I’d suggest walking, it’s a neat area and while I have no personal experience, Fairmont’s supposed to have a decent bar scene if your walk makes you thirsty.
The normal way to tour the East State Penn is a guided audio tour, which at $12.00 is reasonable and in my opinion well worth the money. The audio tour is interesting, well done and doesn’t delve into the cheesy territory if could. It’s narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, of Boardwalk Empire, and I was happy they mentioned on the website, Armageddeon fame (such an underrated movie..judge away), and also features cameos from former inmates and guards. Click here to check out a sample.
The first thing the audio emphasizes, and the first thing you’re sure to notice about the prison is its architecture. The prison is a visually imposing building, resembling a medieval castle; all buttresses and stonework. There’s a particularly striking painting of the building when it was first built and not surrounded by row homes and restaurants, but alone on a hill above some farms. From the time it stopped functioning in the 70’s till about ten years ago it was left to its own vices and disintegrated into the quintessential “haunted mansion.” Parts of the prison are restored, parts aren’t, and even the restored areas are not too pristine as to whitewash away the building’s former life. I’ve never given much thought into how important design is in a prison system and the audio tour does an interesting job in pointing out how the hub design, mirrors, and angles of the guard tower allowed minimal guards to control such a vast landscape. As you move down Cell Block 1, you’re shown the small cells (which ironically were the same size of my college dorm) and learn that the prison was designed and the inmates lives scheduled so that they never saw or heard one another. The guards wore sacks over their boots, the only light into the cells was a small sky light (or more like a sky slit), and when prisoners needed to be moved around, more sacks were placed over both their feet and face. The audio tour gives you just the right amount of claustrophobia a tour guide would be unable to conjure up and I found myself thinking how easy going nuts would’ve been for the inmates. An added bonus to the feelings of paranoia: the audio tour gives you your own “voices in your head.”
The guided tour lasts approximately forty minutes and after that you’re left to your own devices, specifically 31 more optional audio tours (all less than five minutes) that let you explore some more off kilter aspects of prison life. My father, brother, friend and I learned about a 1945 escape attempt which had 13 prisoners dig a 97 foot tunnel out to Fairmont Ave,; Pep, the incarcerated dog; the weddings and births which took place in the main building; and viewed Al Capone’s former digs which reminded me more of the Rat Pack than incarceration. My father opted out of the masturbation lesson, but between giggling like a pack of 13 year olds, the three of us learned that in the 1800’s, 80% of insanity cases were noted to be caused by “the self punishment.”
We stayed at the East State Penn for about 2 hours, but in truth I could have stayed longer. I didn’t get to see Death Row or “The Hole” were the bad prisoners were kept, but it was getting a little chilly and we had dinner plans to make. Due to the audio tour, I’d even go as far to say that the East State Penn could probably be explored alone, especially for anyone who likes their history a little off beat, but if you do go alone, make sure it’s on a weekend when there’ll be some crowds. I don’t know if my review would be as favorable if it was just me, the East State Penn, and my imagination looking down those halls.
Here’s the East State Penn’s Website.