Sunday, March 1, 2015

Eastern State Penitentiary

  Since our longtime friends Bob and Deb Greenberger moved from Connecticut to Maryland, getting together with them has become more involved than an afternoon visit. As a solution, we came up with the idea of meeting at a mid-point, which is what we did this weekend, selecting a motel outside Philadelphia as a good place to do so.
  And, as it would involve an overnight stay, we decided to add some activities to our meeting. We decided to take the tour of Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison that originally opened in 1829 and closed in 1971.
  Much of the facility is in an advanced state of decay, but it is a fascinating view into the past, both the original plan and design -- which was based on the total isolation of each prisoner so that they could repent for their sins, along with mastering trades that would enable them to reenter society -- and the economic and societal demands that resulted in overcrowding, over-building, and the complete abandonment of the original premise.

  A few of the takeaway facts:
  * The "wagon wheel" design had the guard station in the center and a single guard could check all of the original corridors while standing in one spot. As the need for more space required additional construction, including a second level on some of the "spokes," this became more difficult.
  * Each cell had its own private "exercise yard," into which the prisoner was released for an hour or less a day.
  * Prisoners served their terms, usually a year or two, in complete isolation, with the exception of a visit from the chaplain or a guard who was giving the prisoner some instruction in developing a skill, usually for about thirty minutes a week.
  * Though the penitentiary was originally built in the middle of a cherry orchard two miles outside the city, by the time it was closed, it was surrounded by residential housing and businesses, including an elementary school right across the street.
  * It was the first public building in the United States to have central heating, running water, and indoor plumbing. These were all part of the initial design and construction.
  * Al Capone served eight months of a one-year sentence there in 1929. He had been arrested in Philadelphia for carrying an unlicensed gun. His recreated cell looks more like a hotel than prison.
  * Willie Sutton (known for responding to a reporter's question about why he robbed banks, "because that's where the money was") was one of twelve prisoners who tunneled to freedom in 1945; Sutton was recaptured a block away.

  It was a very entertaining and enlightening tour and an excellent addition to the opportunity to see Bob and Deb.

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