Is this what they mean by shabby chic? Actually, it’s a jail cell–Al Capone stayed here during his eight month stint at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. The furniture is not original (he took it with him), but it depicts Capone’s posh digs. He also bought instruments for the prison band and uniforms for the baseball team.
Why the sudden factoids about Eastern State? Several weeks ago, after six years of living in the prison’s immediate vicinity, I finally got off my ass, recruited my friend Snippy K, signed away my right to sue the City of Philadelphia for any injuries incurred on the property, and took the tour.
The prison was designed for solitary confinement; prisoners couldn’t talk to one another or to themselves. Other than brief periods of exercise in a private yard, they were expected to stay in their cells, reflect on their crimes, and read the Bible. It sounds cruel–and it was–but cruelty wasn’t the intent. Back in the day, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was concerned about the conditions of Philadelphia’s prisons and wanted to build a facility that would allow criminals to repent and return to society. The result was Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the largest buildings in the country when it opened in 1829 and the model for more than 300 prisons around the world.
The Penitentiary closed in 1971 and has been open for tours since 1994. The place is dilapidated (the goal is to stabilize Eastern State, not to refurbish it) and full of character. In addition, there are art installations scattered around the grounds.
If you’re ever in Philly and have some free time after seeing the Liberty Bell, come up to Fairmount and check out the Penitentiary. The best time to visit is the weekend before Bastille Day, when we reenact the storming of the Bastille; however, the prison is open Wednesdays through Sundays, April through November.
- Bill Cosby played sports with the inmates here.
- In 1945, Slick Willie Sutton and 11 of his buddies were involved in a tunnel escape. They were all caught and returned to the prison.
- When Charles Dickens visited the US in 1842, he wanted to see Niagara Falls and Eastern State.
- Alexis de Tocqueville also visited the prison.
- Eastern State was used to portray the mental institution in 12 Monkeys.
- The outside walls are thirty feet high.
- The prison’s castle-like facade was intended to intimidate would-be horse thieves and other potential criminals.
- The Pennsylvania System of solitary confinement ended in 1913.