Monday, January 31, 2011

Philadelphia #2 - Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia is not just a crush of people and gastronomic treats at Reading Terminal Market. It also has an inviting penitentiary right near downtown. Really.

From 1829 up until 1971, if you turned to a life of crime, you might have found yourself at Eastern State Penitentiary.

After 1971, it was abandoned for twenty years. Full of crumbling cells, peeling lead paint, and in the winter, drifting snow, it reopened to the public as a historical ruin in 1994. Decrepit and creepy, it has an eerie beauty.

Cellblock hallway.  Note the high ceiling and
natural light.
Snow in a cell.

Originally designed for absolute solitary confinement so that, the theory went, inmates would be inspired to reach toward God and find true penitence, ESP only briefly functioned as it was first envisioned.  Early prisoners spent their sentences in complete isolation in their individual cells. Private exercise yards were attached to each cell with walls high enough between them to prohibit contact. Anonymity was enforced as prisoners wore hoods covering their faces when guards escorted them through the complex. 

The prison had running water before the White House, as the solitary confinement approach required a toilet in every cell.  Suffering the woes of early plumbing models, however, the heating pipes were laid next to the plumbing, so the stink of sewage pervaded the complex year round. 

In short order, overcrowding left solitary an impractical approach. Given the heavy tie now acknowledged between solitary confinement and psychological problems, the switch to operation as a congregate prison, official as of 1913, but with strict solitary eroding well before, was good news.

The original hub-and-spoke design by John Haviland, with cellblocks fanning off a central hub, was an innovation in prison design, allowing surveillance from the center. By the time of its closing, 15 cellbocks jammed every available space, and surveillance had a great many blind spots.

At Eastern State's opening in 1829, the city was a long two miles away. Soon enough, the prison was swallowed up by urban expansion, with the city right up against its doorway, precluding the possibility of prison expansion. ESP wasn't always seen as a good neighbor --particularly when prisoners escaped, building ladders to put up against the wall or digging tunnels underneath it.

Al Capone's stay at the prison, however, lent a celebrity glamour to the place during the year he was there.  He and his bodyguard, arrested for carrying concealed weapons, had cells not off one of the long cellblocks, but in the safe zone by the guard station in the hub center.  Capone's cell was significantly more comfortable, as he brought his own furniture and rugs, and he had phone privileges, allowing him to keep tabs on business.

 His experience was not typical.

Walking down the long hallways or standing in a cell, little imagination is required to feel the residual human despair peeling off the walls along with the paint. During its abandonment, an entire urban forest grew up through the site, loosening the stones, shattering the skylights, breaking the plaster into dust. Before Eastern State opened as a maintained ruin, the trees were cut down and dragged away, but evidence of its harsh conditions as a prison and continuing decay remain haunting.

Roots and vines hanging in a cell.

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