Thanksgiving is one of my favourite things about living in America. Of course, I am glossing over the horrible history of European colonialism and the acts of oppression and genocide towards the indigenous population that are enshrined in the mythology of Thanksgiving. My husband and kids may be Mayflower descendants but we still don’t truck with that whole lore of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around peacefully and munching corn and turkey as an act of friendship. No, forget the mythologising. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that not only celebrates gratitude but also togetherness. We have four solid days together as a family to just relax and enjoy each other’s company – and eat a disgusting quantity of delicious food. As the mother and chief organiser of any festivity or event, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving involves minimal preparation and stress. No gifts to buy or wrap, no decorating to be done, just food to be purchased, cooked, and feasted upon. And that enjoyment of a stress-free, low-hassle holiday is precisely why – despite my thriftiness and love of a bargain – I don’t participate in any Black Friday madness. I loathe shopping at the best of times. Fighting through frenzied crowds in the hopes of finding things I actually wanted or needed at a much lower price is not the best of times. This Black Friday, therefore, we steered clear of any shopping and shoppers and instead headed into Philadelphia to absorb some local history.
Our destination for the day was Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison is an imposing building of thick stone walls in the centre of Philadelphia. We entered through the original entry way and were directed into what was once the guard’s armoury to purchase our tickets and pick up our audio guides. A few steps later and we found ourselves in the grounds of the prison and all sense that we were in the middle of a major city melted away. The thickness and height of the walls meant that barely any sights or sounds from the city outside intruded on our wanderings and we could immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the historic prison.
The building of the prison was completed in 1836 and was modelled on a wheel-spoke design. A central, octagonal rotunda served as the hub of the building while the corridors containing the cells radiated from this hub so that guards could more easily observe what was happening and navigate the prison. It is an architectural design I have seen in old British prisons and asylums but I don’t know which side of the Atlantic developed the idea first. The cells were obviously now in a state of ruin but we could see from the recreated cell that they would have always been very spartan but spacious enough. While the only light was through a hole in the ceiling – known as the “Eye of God” – the cells did have a rudimentary system of flushing toilets and pipes that filled with hot water to keep the cells warm in Winter. We were able to wander along most of these corridor spokes and poke our noses into the decaying cells, many of which were in ruins all while listening to Steve Buscemi relate the history of the prison through our headsets.
Eastern State Penitentiary had instituted what was a novel approach to corrections by insisting that all prisoners held within its walls be subjected to what essentially amounted to solitary confinement. There were initially no doors into the cells from the corridors, just hatches to allow food to be passed in and for guards to observe the prisoner. Access to each cell was gained through a door from the exterior, via the exercise yard. We learned that if prisoners were being moved around the prison they were made to don hoods over their heads which both prevented them seeing their fellow inmates and their fellow inmates being able to identify them. Obviously with the benefit of hindsight we know this to be harsh treatment but this model was actually very enlightened for its time and was motivated by a desire to improve the experiences of prisoners and their quality of life and inspire them to true penitence. Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about the awful psychological impact of that degree of isolation, I felt quite chilled. This insistence on solitary confinement ended in the early 20th Century not because reformers were concerned about mental health but because the prison was so overcrowded that it was no longer feasible to keep all the inmates separated.
We emerged from one spoke out into the exercise yard. There was a playing field for sports and also a greenhouse and gardening area. In the middle of the scrubby baseball diamond, a large bar graph was used to illustrate how rates of incarceration in the US have rocketed in recent decades and how the US imprisons far more of its population than any other country in the world. This was not news to me but seeing it presented in such a way, through a simple but dominating sculpture, and within the context of the stone walls of a prison really made the message quite stark. Some areas of the penitentiary were being used as exhibition spaces for various art installations, some permanent and others revolving. One, for instance, was used to recreate the cells found at the detention camp at Guantanamo. Another had been made by a former prisoner while incarcerated and comprised panels made from sections of his bed linen. He had apparently mailed each little piece of fantasy landscape home upon its completion so that it was only once he was released that he could piece the whole thing together. All pieced together, it covered the walls of one particular cell. Another cell had walls glowing with flecks of gold paint as the artist had added fragments of gold leaf among the pieces of peeling, flaking paint on the walls. I thought that suggested not only something about the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation but also something about the importance of finding value and beauty in the ugly and ruined, preserving history and the importance of places even with such superficially awful histories as prisons. Plus I love gold, shiny things. The most arresting of the art exhibits to my mind, however, was a cell containing monochrome portraits suspended from the ceiling. Each portrait depicted a person who had been murdered by one of the inmates of the penitentiary. While I had been feeling a strong sense of pity and sorrow for the prisoners who had been held in the prison from its opening right up to 1970 when it really must have already been deteriorating, that exhibit punchily reminded me that some of those people I was pitying had committed despicable and violent crimes. My kids were especially taken with a display in one cell which would not have looked out of place in a museum of natural history. It was a collection of specimens gathered within the confines of the prison – insects, birds, and even a mummified cat.
I enjoyed the glimpses into everyday life at the prison. One cell contained a barber’s chair and I could well imagine prisoners gathering there to have their hair cut and chat and gossip just as would happen in any other barber shop. I was also able to pop into the beautifully restored synagogue that was nestled between corridor spokes. We also got to see Al Capone’s cell with its recreation of his home comforts. Eastern State Penitentiary was the site of Capone’s first prison experience and I don’t think it was altogether miserable for him. Apparently, while the media made much of Capone receiving special treatment while he was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, he was probably being treated not vastly differently from the average inmate in that era of the prison’s life, maybe just a few simple perks. Recent research, we were told, explains that the radio he had in his cell was purchased from its previous occupant and also indicates that Capone had to share a cell when surely not having to share would have been one of the first luxuries insisted upon if in receipt of special treatment.
It truly was a fascinating place in and of itself but also in terms of the wider context of penal history and attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation. I could easily have spent another hour or two wandering around the Penitentiary, listening to every last morsel of the audio tour. However, our kids – especially the 11 year old – had had enough and were at the threshold of what they were willing to tolerate. We, therefore, chose not to push our luck and to depart while the going was good. I was very pleased to tick off another historic Philadelphia landmark from my list of places I must visit.