Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eastern State Penitentiary

When you think of Philadelphia, you think of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or maybe the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the zoo. What does not immediately spring to mind is a moldering old prison.

The Eastern State Penitentiary was built back in 1829 and remained in operation until 1972. It has sat there ever since. Various plans were introduced, including turning it into luxury apartments or a another shopping mall, but eventually a group of folks got together with the intent of preserving the place. Rather than restore it, they wisely decided to maintain the site as a standing ruin. This makes for some fabulous photographic opportunities.

 The name "penitentiary" actually originated with this prison. The idea was for inmates to reside in solitary monastic confinement and seek penance from God.

A restored view of the original interior. The small door leads to the outdoor exercise area.
The rooms are reasonably small and each have a thin skylight (presumably so God could look in on them). Each cell also had a tiny outdoor space in which the prisoner could "exercise."

A sunbeam slices through the decaying cell interior, showing decades of neglect.
The ancient doors are all but falling off their rails.
When it first opened, the inmates were hooded before they entered the facility, so they had no idea as to the layout of the place. They were also kept from talking to other inmates. Guards wore special shoes with felt soles so even the sounds of their footsteps were muffled.

An old cabinet, worn with use, attached to the crumbing wall.
Looking down the corridor of one of the two-story wings.
This prison was also the origin of an incarceration management innovation: the radiating spoke shape of the wings. This enables the wardens to keep watch of each wing from a central location at the hub. Each wing was designed to be a single story, but the state soon decided to change the plans to include two-story wings as the prison was filling up much too fast.

Today, most of the wings are partially restored, with some cells hosting museum exhibits and photographic galleries. A few wings are cleaned up but still in a state of decay, but a couple of wings are left in their original state, untouched. These ruined wings are sealed off from the public.

This wing has been closed off for decades.
When it was built, Eastern State had toilets in each cell. This was at the time when the president of the United States was forced to use a chamber pot in the White House!

The view from inside a cell.
The guard tower as seen from inside the walls.
Detail of the paint peeling from the walls.
You can see more images (including some garishly tone-mapped examples) here.

 The afternoon would have been a smashing success but for one thing. For some reason, the caretakers feel they need to charge a special permit fee for the use of a tripod (or monopod). The supervisor explained that tripods are seen as a nuisance and they want to discourage their use. They believe that they take up space and people have trouble going around them and they get in the way, etc. How much does it cost for all this pain and suffering to go away? Ten dollars, nearly the same price as admission ($12). So, they feel tripods are a nuisance but will look the other way if you give them some money. I sardonically pointed out that they should charge more money for teenagers too, as they tend to get in the way and can be a terrible nuisance. Old people are slow, do they have to pay more? I explained that if they are troubled by tripods getting in the way, they shouldn't be punishing the visitor because they have a tripod, they should punish the bad behavior (getting in the way of other visitors). The supervisor was not happy with this line of reasoning and kept falling back on the old "It's policy" response.

 Eastern State Penitentiary is an interesting tourist attraction and they're doing their best to promote the place. So why alienate a group of people who can help promote the site? Very few photographers use tripods. Those who do are very serious about their craft and tend to share their images and talk about where they were taken. If anything, Eastern State Penitentiary should be encouraging tripod photographers, maybe giving them access to otherwise closed areas. I don't mind paying a bit of extortion money if it's a little bit, but charging nearly the same price for the tripod as for admission is stupid and not getting any added value for the extra money is simply ridiculous.

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