When I think of the word "penitent," I immediately think of Indiana Jones crouching in the temple of the Holy Grail, saying "only the penitent man shall pass." What never occurred to me was that it was the root of the word "penitentiary," which implies that the people inside such a place are repentant for their crimes.
Imprisonment as a form of punishment is a relatively new invention. Previously, prisons were mostly holding tanks where criminals would await punishment, either capital or corporal. In the 19th century, someone decided that withholding freedom was kind of a punishment in itself. A couple of different systems were developed around this idea. In the Auburn system, prisoners worked together during the day on chain gangs and in factories. At all times, they had to remain silent. There was also the Pennsylvania system, which required all prisoners to be in solitary confinement at all times. Thus a prisoner could have ample time for reflection and would thereby find his way to penitence.
The Auburn System is sending your squabbling kids to weed the garden. The Pennsylvania System is sending them to their respective rooms.
Eastern State Penitentiary, located right smack dab in Philadelphia, was the first prison built according to the Pennsylvania system (and is the reason for the system's name). It is built like a fortress, taking up an entire city block. It was opened in 1829 and continued to hold prisoners until 1971. The city then purchased it with the intention of developing it into a mall or luxury townhomes. Instead, it sat abandoned for nearly twenty years, as the earth began to reclaim it. Trees grew up into the cells, and a colony of stray cats thrived. I guess you could say that everything man has ever built is in a state of arrested decay, but Eastern State got farther along that path before someone stepped in and stopped it.
Now, the penitentiary is open seven days a week for tours, both guided or audio (voiced by Steve Buscemi). It is considered a "stabilized ruin" (you know, some days I feel like a stabilized ruin myself). Up until the early 2000s, visitors were required to sign waivers and wear hard hats while inside. Much of the prison is open for self-guided exploration, though parts of it are only availabe on a guided tour. Other parts are locked up completely. You can peek in the windows of those sections and see what it must have all looked like before they stabilized it - pieces of ceiling fallen in, tree branches growing through the walls, random institutional furniture tossed around. The open parts are nice, or at least safe. You won't need a hard hat, but you could probably still get tetanus if you tried.
The penitentiary is hauntingly beautiful (and some say just plain haunted). The original buildings were made of hand-cut stone and had vines growing up them, and you might mistake them for the ivy-decorated walls of some fancy school. There was intricate scroll work on the wooden banisters leading up to the upstairs cells. The cell blocks were church-like, with high arched ceilings with skylights and loose plaster. The green paint, put on who knows when, was chipping and crackling away, leaving bare iron exposed. The old wooden doors looked like something that someone would stick legs on and sell as a reclaimed wood farmhouse table.
We are strange beings, to find so much beauty in decay. Maybe it's embracing the inevitable.
We were there on a gorgeous fall day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. And we were touring this old decrepit prison, where terrible things had happened. But I suppose some of the greatest tragedies of human history probably happened on days that would have been perfect for a nice picnic.
There are several art installations within the prison, because nothing can make something more depressing quite like art. One cell contained an approximation of a cell at Guatanamo Bay, chain-link fence and all. On the cement floor, next to the thin sleeping mat, was an arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca. Another cell showed projections of transgendered prisoners, yet another complicated problem I never knew existed. Scattered around the prison were 39 statues of cats, all in different poses, situated in random spots to represent the stray cat colony that once lived there. They were white, and if you happened to come up on one suddenly, it was pretty spooky.
My favorite installation was one that I did not realize at first was art (art is sneaky like that). There were several blue signs, almost like informative road signs, that pointed in a direction and gave an event on them. Each sign pointed towards another destination for dark tourism - Antietam, Jonestown, the site of the Trinity test. Each sign seemed like an accusatory finger. What kind of person are you, to take vacations to visit memorials to mankind's cruelty? Here, get my picture on the grassy knoll.
But no, I reject the accusation. Touring our past is still better than forgetting it. And hey, maybe that was the point of the installation. Art is sneaky like that, too.
Ultimately, the Pennsylvania system was a failure. For one thing, we put too many people in jail to give them each their own space. For another, the origins are crime are more complicated than a period of quiet reflection can solve.
You can't help but notice how much it would suck to be in prison. We were able to take a tour of the Klondike, the solitary confinement area. It's a hole. It's underground, kept completely dark, and you can't even stand fully upright. It was closed because it was considered cruel. But even the regular cells are hardly luxurious. The cells are cavelike and so old that they pre-date even basic modern comforts.
At the end of the audio tour, Steve Buscemi says that he hopes that your experience at Eastern State Penitentiary will encourage you to put some thought into the problems of punishment, incarceration, and rehabilitation. He doesn't tell you what you should think, just hopes that you do. I am lucky that I've never had much cause to think about prisons at all, and I've come to no solid conclusions since. Other than that if you are ever anywhere near Philadelphia, go to the penitentiary. It's not often that a tourist site can change your life, but this one may do it.