My stint in Eastern State Penitentiary

Al Capone was an 'enforced guest' of the prison; I was just a tourist.
A record player
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Medieval exterior wall, viewed from Fairmount Avenue.

“Shawshank Redemption” usually brings to mind my late mother-in-law, Dolores Sides, who was a big fan of the prison movie. I thought of “Shawshank” on Saturday morning as I walked through the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

I confess my guilt: I knew very little about this historic prison as we passed through its entrance on Fairmount Avenue.

Starting in 1829 with its first prisoner, Charles Williams, Eastern State operated until 1971.

Guided tours started in 1994. Admission includes an audio tour, “The Voices of Eastern State,” narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

A look down a cellblock.

Eastern State is described in a brochure as “the world’s first true penitentiary, a building designed to inspire penitence — or true regret — in the hearts of criminals.”

The prison’s original design featured a surveillance hub from which guards could look down seven spoke-like cellblocks. (You can see Tina Turner spinning around the hub in this music video.) The design is said to have inspired approximately 300 other prisons built in Europe, Asia, South America and Australia in the 1800s.

But the notion of reforming prisoners through isolation (inmates wore hoods when not in their cells) drew critics, including Charles Dickens, and the “Pennsylvania System” ultimately gave way to cells housing two or three inmates. Far from the lofty ideal of reforming prisoners, in 1956 Eastern State completed its final addition: cellblock 15, also known as death row.


Baseball field between cellblocks three and four.

Above, a view through the backstop toward the prison’s baseball field. The exterior wall reminded me of Fenway Park’s left field “Green Monster,” particularly when Bobby Valentine managed the Boston Red Sox in 2012. Watching that last-place team felt kinda like a prison sentence.

I don’t know how many prisoners successfully escaped from Eastern State, but baseballs routinely made it out: 4,300 in 1934 alone.


Al Capone’s cell as it would have looked in 1929.

Do you remember Geraldo Rivera’s ridiculous two-hour live TV special in 1986, “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults”? He found neither bodies nor treasures, just debris. If you want to see some real Capone history, check out the cell that he occupied at Eastern State.

He and his bodyguard, en route from Atlantic City to Chicago, stopped to see a movie in Philadelphia. Police arrested Capone on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon, for which he was sentenced to one year in prison. An article in The Evening Bulletin newspaper called Capone an “enforced guest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The article noted Capone’s “luxurious cell,” complete with rug, desk, table lamp, paintings.

“As he spoke,” according to the article, “the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of a handsome design and fine finish.”


Gate leading to prison’s hospital

Capone (tonsils) was one of many prisoners who benefitted from the prison’s state-of-the-art hospital.

Testament to the hospital’s importance: numerous articles about it and the medical staff appeared in the prisoner-produced magazine, “Eastern Echo,” published from 1956 to 1967.

For a more complete history of Eastern State, click here.



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