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Imprisonment and Penance in Philadelphia

How the Eastern State Penitentiary Influenced the Prison System

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA may seem like an unusual travel destination, and it is. This incredibly informative destination it’s one of the United States’ most infamous and influential historic sites.

“First of all, it’s the first true penitentiary in the world,” states Lauren Zalut, Director of Education and Tour Programs. “It was the first place where people who committed a crime could be forgiven.” Opened in 1829, it was designed with the philosophy that criminals can repent and be reformed.

The penitentiary was shut down and abandoned in 1971 but opened again in the 90's as a tourist site. “We operate Eastern State as a stabilized ruin. When people first started coming here they had to wear a hard hat,” says Zalut. Thankfully, the building has become significantly safer, and you can wear an audio headset instead.

The building is still far from sunshine and rainbows, though. “It’s definitely creepy. It’s a very imposing building,” she says. “You arrive at this building that looks like a castle in the middle of a city and it just invades your perception.”

A daily guided tour starts at 2 p.m., though reservations are needed. You’ll be guided through cellblocks, Soup Alley, the operating room, and more, all while discussing the history of the building and how the prison system has both changed and stayed the same since its closing. Zalut says, “All of our tours are thematic and based on conversation. We want visitors to connect the past and the present while learning on the tour.” The Hands-on-History tours allow you to actually step into the cells and interact with a piece of the prison.

Among the available tours, the self-guided audio tour is a popular choice. “Probably the coolest thing is there’s a sense of discovery as you’re walking down the corridors, especially if you’re on the audio tour.” You can walk around the prison, listening to a narrated tour by Steve Buscemi, with snippets of recorded dialogue from actual former prisoners and workers.

Plenty of famous names are attached to the penitentiary. “The most famous person was Al Capone, for sure. This was the first place he was incarcerated,” says Zalut. There are parts of the penitentiary dedicated to him, including a recreation of his cell. There were also some amazing jailbreaks that have been preserved. “Visitors get to see a cell with a prisoner-dug tunnel in a cell where 12 people escaped from the prison in 1945.”

Eastern State Penitentiary was extremely influential on how the prison system is set up. For example, they originally used solitary confinement as a rehabilitation tool, but later turned it into the punishment it is today. You can also check out the Big Graph, a 16 foot, bright red sculpture on the prison baseball field. It shows all of the statistics of prisons since Eastern closed, including incarceration rates, racial background, and rates from around the world. “I think history is all around you, and history informs the world around you. We want you to be immersed and think about how the past and the present inform the future.”

Zalut stresses that the purpose of the tours is to educate and open discussion about today’s prison system. She hopes that more people come and learn about Eastern and its influences, the more people will be open to change. “It’s our mission to make the space accessible to make a public forum for people to react and talk about the way the prison system is set up and where it is now.”

-By Ettractions Digital Content Editor, ALLISON BENNETT

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Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh

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