A Look inside “the World’s First True Penitentiary”
Despite the overwhelming amount of fascinating, historic sites in Philadelphia, none of them gets us quite as excited as Eastern State Penitentiary. Something about this enormous, dark, ominous structure looming over Philly’s Fairmount neighborhood just draws us in. We decided to satisfy our curiosities and contacted Brett Bertolino, Director of Operation at Eastern State Penitentiary. Bertolino provided us with a very comprehensive history of the prison while educating us on all of their excellent programs and helped answer all of our burning questions.
Bertolino began by explaining the significance of Eastern State, stating that it was “considered to be the first modern building in the United States because it had central heat and indoor plumbing” stating that “the reason it had all of these amenities is because it was a very large an innovative experiment.” He elaborated by explaining that Eastern State earns its title as “the first true penitentiary” because it was built with a mission of penitence in mind. Prisoners were originally meant to spend two years in complete solitary confinement in order to repent for their sins and return to society completely rehabilitated.
State of the Art Isolation
The reason for the state-of-the-art design of the prison was to ensure that prisoners would have no human contact and that there was absolutely no need for anyone to enter a cell. Bertolino explains, “They created a space that an inmate could live in with very limited human contact, you didn’t have to leave to go to the bathroom, you didn’t have people delivering water or coal or anything like that.” The only interaction prisoners would have with the outside world would be a tray of food sliding through a hole in their cell and the only entertainment they were allowed was a copy of the Holy Bible. This movement of solitary confinement was meant to bring about a reformative, religious experience.
The unique, high tech design of Eastern State Penitentiary was copied by more than 300 prisons around the world. Unfortunately, their model of reformation was not as popular and was eventually deemed cruel and ineffective. Eastern State became a standard, congregate prison and shifted away from its original ideals. Ironically, it began housing prisoners with life sentences and death row inmates. In 1971, the prison closed due to the declining conditions and the fact that riots and escape attempts were negatively effecting the surrounding neighborhood. After 142 years in operation the prison became unusable, prisoners were transferred and, as Bertolino states, “One of the most influential building in the United States” was left vacant and forgotten.
Modern Use for a Historic Jail
Over the years, several plans were proposed for the prison, many of them pushing for its demolition. A group of architects, historians, criminologists and preservations got together and formed the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force and fought for the prison to be turned into a museum and historic landmark in order to save it from being destroyed. They succeeded in their mission and paved the way for Eastern State to become the famous attraction that it is today.
Eastern State is now open to the public for tours, events, special programs and general exploration. One of their most popular programs is an audio tour, voiced by actor, Steve Buscemi. Many guests begin their visit with the guided, audio tour and then spend some time wandering the grounds and exploring different areas of the museum. They also offer a “hands on history” program that allows visitors experience the prison’s underground torture cells, operating room, chapel and kitchen with interactive exhibits in each area. They also have several history exhibits throughout the museum and an art gallery. One of the highlights of the museum is that, as Brett Bertolino explains, “it appeals to a wide range of interests including ghosts, ruins, criminology, history, Al Capone and prohibition.” With this wide range of attractions within the prison walls, anybody can find something that speaks to their particular interests.
Why We Still Love the Eastern State Penitentiary
So, what is it that draws people to Eastern State? Why has it gained so much popularity over the years? Brett thinks he has the answer. He feels that “people are curious and intrigued by prisons” and that when you see a ruin like Eastern State you automatically have a desire to see what is inside. He also stated, quite simply, “touring an abandoned prison is really cool and not something you can do in a lot of cities.” A lot of people come to marvel at the huge arched ceiling and skylights, while others love the authenticity of the unaltered prison and the hands-on experiences that they offer. He loves that Philadelphian’s enjoy bringing out of town visitors to Eastern State and showing off this unique piece of Philly history.
Eastern State Penitentiary supports itself through tours, corporate event rentals and its popular, “Terror behind the Walls” fundraiser. They give back to the community by contributing to the vibrant tourism, offering free programs and working with local youth groups. Make sure you stop in for a visit and support this amazing landmark; you will not regret the opportunity to experience this amazing attraction, right in your own backyard.
Check out our listings surrounding the penitentiary here!
Written by Patrick Kaisinger (Mike McCann Team Blogger Extraordinaire)