Friday, January 31, 2014

It seems I spoke too soon. (AKA My afternoon in a Haunted Prison.)

Earlier this month, I bemoaned 2014's slow start, at least where travel-related adventures were concerned. Was this to be an omen for things (not) to come? Was I to be homebound or exiled to nothing but frozen tundra until Springtime? In an attempt to keep the blog going, I wandered around my neighborhood, snapped some photos and hoped that it would do. How was I to know that my luck was about to turn? How could I have predicted that a mere three days later I would be going to prison?

And not just any prison, I would be finding myself within the walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. This is an institution that was the first of its kind; was one of the most expensive public works project in the US at the time of its construction; has been featured on practically every-Paranormal type program there is (ie. Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Most Haunted Live- and who knew ghosts were such hams?)and has served as the setting for both the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" video and Brad Pitt's twitchy lunacy in Twelve Monkeys.

At the time this prison was conceived, in the early 19th century, the prevailing philosophy was to house all inmates together in a state of general lawlessness as they awaited their punishment. The incarceration itself was not seen as punitive, the corporal punishment (whips, stocks, etc) or public shaming that followed was.  Age, severity of the crime and prior record were not taken into account when grouping inmates, so the prisons became a de facto university for young criminals to learn from their more experienced peers. (Kind of like now.)  Once the person had been punished, usually publicly, they were considered a social pariah and tended to have a hard time finding employment. (The more things change...)

The organization that was behind this particular prison, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, wanted to change this.  They felt that by allowing the prisoners to have plenty of time to think about what they had done, they would repent or show penitence (thus the birth of the "penitentiary" system).  But repenting was not enough, once they were released, it was important that they not carry any social stigma so as to be able to re-integrate into "normal" society.  

This goal led to what became known as the "Pennsylvania system".  Instead of communal prisons, under this doctrine, the inmates would serve their entire sentence in solitary confinement. They would sit in a tiny cell for 23 hours and spend the remaining hour in an exercise yard, during which they would wear a hood over their head, lest they accidentally see another inmate.   Barbaric as it sounds, the intentions were good, to protect their anonymity and allow them, through introspection, to see the error of their ways...or at least that is how our guide explained it. 

As my enthusiasm over this visit may have betrayed, I was at Eastern State very much by choice (and not via the less desirable "You have the right to remain silent..." route) and since this was January and this was Philadelphia, I was able to participate in one of their special "winter tours".

The prison is a year-round tourist attraction, but is normally much more do-it-yourself with a limited portion of the facility open to the public and explanations provided by an audio-guide. During the colder months, when I imagine no one in their right mind would have the patience of the stamina to listen to a recorded narration while standing inside those frozen corridors, the audio-guide is replaced by a real life human and the tours venture into areas normally closed to the public.

I'm guessing this is closer to what the original tours were like.  Hard as it is to imagine, when the prison first opened in 1829, it was both a working facility and a tourist attraction.  Visitors could come and gawk at the imposing passageways and hear tales about those who were incarcerated therein (without actually seeing them, of course). Now, I know times were different and that Disney World would not open for another 145 years, but how shitty must all of your other options have been when you thought it a good idea to pack up the family and take them to this den of misery.  Come to Eastern State Penitentiary, the Saddest place on Earth.

Part of the appeal must have been the building itself.    Conceived by John Haviland, it was premised on an ingenious "hub and wheel" design.  In the center was a circular room with six one-story corridor extending out in all directions.  From this central apex, a single guard could observe what was happening in all corners of the prison.  The idea was so simple yet effective that it was soon replicated in prisons all over the world.

The place was initially a success.  Each inmate would carry out his (or her- women were housed here, as well) term in solitude, identified only by a number so not even the guards knew their identities. Upon completion, they would be released into the free world, no questions asked. Sure, the average 2 year sentence and its attendant sensory deprivation probably make them nuts (or more nuts, whatever the case may be) but as far as anyone knew, their record was clean.  No records were kept so there is no way of knowing where this actually worked or if there was any recidivism.

The problem was that there were a finite number of cells (450 to be precise) and since doubling up was not an option, they ran out of room rather quickly.  The solution was, of course, to add more corridors and more cells.

Next up was ditching the single story layout for a two story one.  On one hand, it made it harder to observe everything from the guard's central lookout but on the other hand, you doubled the capacity of the prison.  Unfortunately, mo' cells, mo' problems.  

When the hub had no more spoke-room, the corridors started branching into other directions, with mirrors put into place to hopefully give the guard some idea what was going on.

After a while, it all became too much.  Prisoners were being used to construct the new additions, they were being put into service as assistants for the prison wardens, they were having to share the exercise yard.  Every day, there was less and less that was solitary about their confinement.  By 1913, all pretenses were abandoned and it became a regular prison with shared cells.

That is not to say the occasional high-roller was not able to get a private suite.  Al Capone's digs appear ready for a spread in Home and Prison magazine.

Further philosophical shifts were evident in the addition of a Death Row.  At this point, there was no point in having the inmates repent so they were all housed in a communal cell block. (Good news: You have found Jesus and are a new man. Bad news: We are all out of the lobster thermidor for your last meal)

An attempt at modernization
It remained an active prison up until it shut its door in 1970.  What killed it was its antiquity. Whereas at the time it opened, it was considered ultra-modern (it had running water and working toilets before the White House did!), by the later 20th century, it was a dinosaur.  A riot occurred when a couple of inmates over-powered the guards and got a hold of the keys. Yes, keys.  For the most part, they had actual keys on a keyring, Pirates of the Caribbean-style, whereas ever other prison now had electrical locks and gates.

Once it shut down, it lay abandoned until 1991.  In that interim, there was talk of turning the prison into luxury condos. First month free, no extra fees for ghostly visitations.  Speaking of spooky inhabitants, our guide didn't. As in, he pretty much dismissed the possibility while acknowledging the marketing genius of holding annual Halloween haunted house within the prison.

There was also talk of turning it into a mall or tearing it down altogether.  Eventually, a preservation society became involved and it was deemed a national monument. Restoration efforts, which are still underway, began.  It is the deterioration of the intervening years that is responsible for its present downright creepy appearance.

I don't usually recommend visits to correctional institutions (Dade-County Jail is a dump and I hear the food sucks, zero stars) but I was happily impressed by the amount of information our guide was able to share with us and with the "preserved ruined" state that the prison was in. I would say that Eastern State Penitentiary (a word I realized I could not pronounce without getting tongue-tied and thus spent an afternoon asking for directions to "the old prison") is a fine way to kick off a new year.  After all, what could be more adventurous than a (quasi) haunted prison?

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