The Hershey Car Museum was not the only place that Alex and I visited during his one-week stay at our place in Pennsylvania. In fact, Alex’s urge to see the top tourist attractions of Philadelphia also helped me close the gap in my exploration of the city. In particular, we went to the Eastern State Penitentiary and Franklin Institute, places that had been long overdue in my list of must-visits.
I have previously mentioned that this being primarily a photo blog, I am concerned more about the aesthetic content than historically or culturally significant matters. It is for that priority that I ruled out Franklin Institute from my blog topics, for it did not constitute enough attractiveness (graphically speaking) to catch on camera, although I found the exhibits illustrative and entertaining for a curious mind. Anyhow, the austerity and solemnity of the old infamous prison in the very heart of Philadelphia is a better visual material, and so this post is about the Eastern State Penitentiary.
Today, the little green sign on the right of the door (picture above) does in fact guide a stray visitor outside the prison walls; yet a century, and even a few dozen years ago, there was no easy way out for hundreds of convicts inhabiting these charmingly gruesome premises.
Perhaps owing to its geographical location, the prison proved so popular and convenient that many new cells and even annexes were eventually added to the initial design. That resulted in a lot of original features being repurposed or eliminated. One such example is the ceiling window; originally intended one per each cell, it had to be disposed of in the first-storey cells of several of the wings because of the second storey later built on top. This multi-layered organization also impeded the outlook of the guard on point duty positioned in the special observation hall in the middle of the star-shaped structure.
Because the prison at times enclosed notable citizens, and because it might be difficult and even unsafe for a person to reinstate in life when his criminal record could be easily fetched out and used for blackmail by one his former fellow inmates, Eastern State Penitentiary adopted the practice of referring to prisoners solely by number. Furthermore, prisoners were rarely allowed to see one another, thus rendering the evil-minded incapable of future name-based inquiries. (I will note that some of the cell doors did not have a number on it while other numbers repeated; “66” is one example.)
If you think that the vast arched hallways reaching up in their stern silence were erected for good looks or for the intimidation of the perpetrators cramming in their tiny four-wall spaces, then, perhaps, you are right. However, do realize that heating up such massive amounts of air, quickly cooled by the gusts of freezing winter winds oozing through dozens of untight windows and doors, was not so simple; and mind you, climate control was not high in the priorities of the warden. If we, properly dressed and in good health, felt a bit chilly inside those walls in minutes—in above-freezing temperatures, though nasty dank weather—just imagine how the lost sheep must have coped in the confines of their wards.
I need not mention that few prisons of the old prided themselves on the high hygiene standards maintained at their facilities. I guess making one dread using a toilet or a shower is as powerful a lesson as depriving one of his freedom.
In the conclusion I will mention that in the history of the Eastern State Penitentiary there has been at least one particular prisoner (except Alex, that is) whose custody was not only a carefree but a rather beneficial matter to the prison administration. The prisoner’s name was Al Capone. Mr. Capone served only a short term of eight months at the Penitentiary, pleasing the guards with his exceptional behavior as well as several other perks from a world-class criminal celebrity. In fact, the location of Capone’s cell suggests that he was more guarded from (other inmates) than against (his attempt to escape). This is how the interior of Al Capone’s cell supposedly looked like: