Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
The Eastern State Penitentiary was a place I'd driven by 50 or so times as I have friends that live nearby, but I had never taken the time to make a proper visit till this spring, and am very glad I did. Opened in 1829, it's the first ever penitentiary and best known as the birth place of solitary confinement. It was believed that people are inherently good and that only environment made them bad. So, the logic was to take all bad influences away and you would repent. Of course, it didn't work out as planned, and many prisoners went mad in the solitude. It was nonetheless very influential worldwide and many prisons followed suit.
Located at 2124 Fairmount Avenue, not too far from the Art Museum. The tour is well worth the $7 they charge and is very photogenic.
Just blocks from City Hall in an area dominated by theaters and high rises, stands an old, unassuming red brick mansion. For nearly 150 years, this has been the headquarters of the Union League of Philadelphia, an organization created during the Civil War to support the President and the Union. The Union league was created in 1862 and this building was constructed in 1865 and expanded in 1910-1911 to occupy the entire city block.
At the time Union League, molded after this first in Philadelphia, sprang up across the country. The New York Union League is said to have contributed greatly to the construction of the base of the Statue of Liberty, the creation of Grant's Tomb, and the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today the only remaining Union Leagues are in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.
This is a reconstruction of a cell in the early days (late 18th century).
Some inmates became mad while incarcerated. This was blamed on "self-abuse" at the time, but it may have been due to the absolute lack of human communication.
From this photo, you can clearly feel that Eastern State was used for a long time. It has a man-in-the-iron-mask all the way to Jimmy Cagney feel.
I greatly appreciated the decision of the curators of the site not to judge anyone. The original designers, with their crazy ideas, the inmates, with their various crimes, and the guards with their many motivations. It is all very well documented, but YOU have to be the judge. It is a strong experience.
When Charles Dickens visited the US, he wanted to see two things: Niagara Falls and Eastern State.
Unexpectedly, Eastern State (regarded then as a progressive institution) made a bad impression on Dickens. The cold, clinical isolation struck him as the ultimate punishment.
That is quite a revelation, because the 19th century prisons of London were atrocious. But at least, you could communicate with the other prisoners...
I am fascinated by ruins. My dream is to visit Sonargaon and the great abandoned Rajbaris of Bengal.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a "stabilized" ruin, and it oozes with atmosphere.
It is not a dangerous visit, but the site has not been overly processed either.
This is Al Capone's cell, near the barber shop.
I am not usually crazy about audio tours, but the one at Eastern State is remarkable.
The visit costs $9, which is reasonable considering the scope of the compound.
I thought I would be given a hard hat (I had read that somewhere) but I just had to sign a waiver before buying my ticket.
This is Eastern's Death Row, a particularly creepy spot. It was built later than the rest, and it feels more cruel and hopeless.
All through the complex, you find small avant-garde art installations which contribute to the surreal atmosphere.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first correctional facility with the goal of reforming prisoners (through penitence) in addition to keeping them out of the population.
The principle was absolute isolation. The prisoners had small single cells, with a tiny backyard, and never saw another human being during their incarceration.
The hub and spoke system was not space efficient: the seven cellblocks only housed a couple of hundred prisoners... at first (late 18th century).
The Penitentiary is in a quiet neighborhood on a hill, not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Arts.
Of course, when it was built, it was isolated and far from everything.
The castle-like facade was meant to intimidate European immigrants. The parapets and the openings are strictly decorative.
Eastern State Penitentiary was built in the 1800's and was closed down a few decades back. It started out as an experiment in prison reform. It had more amenities than the White House did at the time it was designed.
Al Capone spent some time here as well. His cell is still decorated with some of his personal belongings (Persian rug!).
You can tour the prison for a small price. There are audio tapes for the tour but unfortunately they are only in English. I went here with some Germans who don't understand much English but they claim they still enjoyed it.
Some people especially enjoy the tour at Halloween but I for one think it would be pretty cold as part of the tour is outside.