Wandering the corridors of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, it’s difficult not to feel a chill down your spine. The paint peeling from the walls, the crumbling brickwork, and the abandoned operating theatre, complete with a giant broken surgical light, all contribute to a disconcerting sense that you are on the set of a horror film. It seems, also, that this emotive environment is deliberate. Having ceased to be operational in 1971, ESP was gradually opened to the public from the mid-1980s under the philosophy that it would be ‘stabilized’, not restored, and it now attracts around 220,000 visitors each year. It takes full advantage of the setting around this time of year, with its annual, after-dark ‘Terror Behind the Walls’ interactive Halloween event, as part of which costumed actors lurk in the shadows, waiting to terrify their patrons. Indeed, the prison has even acted as a mental asylum in Hollywood films.
There’s no doubt about it: the macabre sells, and ESP is by no means the only former prison to have noticed this across the world. Perhaps what intrigues people most about ESP is that until 1913 it ran on the principle that solitary confinement was the best way to rehabilitate the criminal. To the twenty-first-century observer, such a mode of incarceration seems tantamount to torture, and bound to induce the kinds of physical and mental health problems which made the prison’s eerie hospital wing so necessary. However, what ESP is careful to show through its audio guide is that when the penitentiary first opened in 1829, solitary confinement was deemed by sober-minded reformers on both sides of the Atlantic to be a revolutionary new way of not only punishing the prisoner, but of allowing them a route to social reintegration. The eighteenth-century British philanthropist John Howard has been widely credited with devising the system of single-celling, and Britain’s largest prison reform organization, the Howard League, still bears his name. The salacious tales of madness, murder, and mafia (Al Capone was an inmate in the late 1920s) at ESP stand in stark contrast to the supposedly noble vision which underpinned the penitentiary system at its origins. ESP recognizes the need to acknowledge both sides of the story.
Its guided tours also offer some different perspectives on everyday prison life, addressing the question, for example, of how people worshipped. Visitors can see the synagogue within the walls of the penitentiary, which is the only part to have been fully restored. In the chaplain’s office are a series of murals painted under an alias by Lester Smith, an inmate in the 1950s, who turned to religious art as a coping mechanism and a path to self-transformation. The final exhibit, ‘Prisons Today’, meanwhile encourages visitors to reflect on the fact that ESP does not stand in historical isolation, but is part of a continuum in which society has constantly sought new definitions of crime, punishment, and rehabilitation, and is far from a perfect answer. This is a particularly pertinent point to make in the United States, which continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (666 people per 100,000 at the end of 2015, totalling over 2.1 million), disproportionately affecting the African American population (who in 2010 represented 13% of the overall population, but 39% of the prison population). The continuities between the history on display at ESP and the contemporary culture of incarceration are further emphasized by the employment of people who have passed through this prison system as tour guides.
Eastern State Penitentiary as a public history institution thus rises to the challenge of not only enticing visitors by appealing to their appetite for sensation and their fascination with the macabre, but also making the point that prisons are sites which affect real lives, and which should make us ask profound questions about both the past and the present. What is the purpose of incarceration? Who is incarcerated, and how? Is incarceration the best path by which to solve social problems, and if so for whom and in which forms? These are questions with which our societies are still coming to terms, and ESP encourages us to reflect on this through history.
Image: Tom Smith