It was a glorious fall day. Yellow leaves still clung to the trees and glowed backlit in the sunshine against a bright blue sky. My friend Jean and I were spending Sunday in Philadelphia. First we did our patriotic duty and visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We piled back into the car and set off for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Arshile Gorky exhibition; he’s one of my favorite artists.
We never made it to the museum. As we crossed the Fairmount neighborhood, a high stone wall loomed over us. “Oh, stop the car,” Jean cried. “It’s a prison. Can we go in?”
And that was how we discovered the historic Eastern State Penitentiary –by simply stumbling over it. Jean, it turns out, knows quite a bit about prisons. She lives near Leavenworth, and she visits prisoners as part of a Quaker program.
Eastern State is in an advanced state of decrepitude, but they have quite a nice visitors program. You get an audioguide with the admission ticket ($10), but we took a free live tour on prison riots.
Behind its grey stone walls, the prison, built in 1836, is designed like a starfish, with long corridors radiating out from the core. The cells originally held only one person each, and the place was dedicated to repentance (thus the word penitentiary) and rehabilitation. But as so often happens, before long wardens had jammed several people into most cells, and retribution became the order of the day. The last prisoner was moved away in 1971.
Today you can walk the old corridors, through corroding iron gates, past flaking green painted walls and falling plaster. Some cells look as though no one has been there for nearly 40 years; others (like Al Capone’s) have been restored. Several artists have been invited to put up installations. The most chilling was a room in which visitors were invited to write anonymously about their secret crimes; it was compelling reading. I wondered how much was fiction and how much fact.
Eastern State Penitentiary had what is thought to be the first synagogue in an American prison. The room has been restored, but even more interesting than the space itself were the stories about the people who worshipped there.
After our visit, we crossed the street to the bustling Mug Shot café for coffee. I was so delighted with the idea that we’d accidentally found this place – and that Jean is the kind of spontaneous person who’s willing to change plans and take a chance on something new. I would never have put a prison tour on my list of priorities; the only way to get me there was by accident. Isn’t that the way we find so many wonderful things in life?