Ghosts of Prisons Past

As I have the day off since I work tomorrow, my friend Jen and I went to visit Eastern State Penitentiary today. We’re both history buffs so this was a great place to spend a nice gray day. This partially dilapidated historical monument to the first serious but tragic attempt at prisoner rehabilitation sits not too far from the famous Philadelphia Art Museum, rising up like a castle in the middle of a modern neighborhood. The tall ramparts obscure the many prison buildings and cellblocks that lay behind it, trapped in the grip of slow deterioration. Its presence is imposing, its history is gritty and uncomfortable, but what remains is a glimpse into another world in a previous time. (You can read about it here, here, and here.)

I’ve never been through the prison grounds before so this was my first chance to walk through all of the structures. The first thing that hits you is the state of dilapidation that twenty years of abandonment have wrecked upon it. For all of their current efforts (which are very good), the walls show their age through sheer peeling. Looking up at the ceiling reveals whatever materials they used for when that cellblock was built; brick, plaster, beams, and whatnot. Every cell door is tiny, covering a door that made me duck every time. Not only duck, but cross over a wide threshold, making me feel even smaller. You can follow the ideas and the passage of time through how the cellblocks were constructed as well as the cell amenities. For whatever reason, each generation of the prison is hard to imagine for me; from the silent stoic days in the 1830’s to the overcrowded hustle and bustle of the prison in the late 1960’s. The emptiness now belies any of the daily activities that the history markers or tour guides told us.

In touring the prison, I took a lot of pictures and shot a few short videos. And in having a sudden bout of 2.0 inspiration, I uploaded everything to Flickr, scanned a prison map, and made a note that corresponds to each photo taken. Check it out, I hope you enjoy it. And if you’re in the Philly region, go see it.

I’ll even come with you. =D