When the suggestion came up to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary I was worried it might be a little like the catacombs in Paris - oppressively morbid. The Penitentiary was certainly a heavy experience but the sheer beauty of the ruins and the streaming sunlight made for a different experience than I would have thought.
Know what else was unexpected? Steve Buscemi's voice is the guide of the headphone walking tour.
The ideas and philosophies that guided the construction of this building are interesting. At the time it was built in 1829 most jails were large holding cells where prisoners were kept all together in a single room or several large rooms. The chaos and violence that ensued in these prisons led a group of citizens to form The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. These men believed that to truly become penitent, the men and women in jail needed solitude and quiet reflection to reach the point of reform. Each prisoner was given a room with a skylight, a door to the outdoor recreation facilities and a workbench on which they often made shoes or chairs or worked at other trades during their imprisonment.
The idea of separation even went so far as to prevent other prisoners from knowing who else was in the prison. Should a prisoner have a reason to leave their cells and walk down the long corridors, they were fitted with a mask to prevent them from being recognized inside the prison, thus protecting their identity once they left the prison.
The Eastern State Penitentiary came to embody what became known as the Pennsylvania System. Prisons all over the country started to copy their construction and system of separating prisoners and many prominent figures from overseas came to the prison to observe it's theories in practice.
Al Capone was kept here for a time but unlike the run of the mill prisoners his cell was outfitted with carpet and a lush bed, orate desk and even a roman bust to keep him comfy.
What struck me most about the whole tour was the expansive windows and natural light pouring in everywhere contrasted with the relative darkness of tiny cells and their skylights. And of course that where we were so casually touring was a prison. A place to put the people in our society that we felt we didn't belong or didn't want to see.
Towards the end of the tour there is a small poster talking about the prison system today and the percentage of populations of different countries in prison. The United States imprisons more of our population than any other country.
Much much more could have been said about the current prison system - such as the disturbing way that prisons are being privatized. But the Penitentiary chose not to delve into the current system.
I'll leave you with Angela Davis speaking about the Industrial Prison Complex.
"It costs much more to send someone to prison than to send them to college."