This jailhouse in Philadelphia rocks

Kiran Mehta | Updated on March 13, 2020

Here lived the mobster: Al Capone’s first prison sentence was a nine-month term at the Eastern State Penitentiary   -  IMAGE COURTESY: EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY

Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison in Philadelphia where Al Capone once lived, is now a tourist attraction

At first glance, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) building looks like a castle with its high-stone walls, arched windows and guard towers. Although given the history of the place, you’d do well to think less Disney and more Tim Burton-esque!

I step inside the large iron gates, which shut with a menacing ‘thud’ behind me. With that begins my self-guided tour, which harks back to the history of the penitentiary. The audio guide (the narration is about 35 minutes long and includes 10 stops) informs us that prior to ESP’s founding, prisons were overcrowded, filthy spaces where people died of disease and starvation. Horrified by these conditions, the world’s first prison reform group — The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons — set up ESP. It was meant to offer solitude, so criminals could be penitent, and rediscover their inherent goodness.

True to their vision, ESP came with all that is needed to treat criminals in a humane manner. Architect John Haviland designed a structure where inmates had luxuries such as a private cell, private toilet and running water. The latter was an indulgence that even the White House lacked at the time. A whopping $7,80,000 was spent on ESP’s construction. Even today, it’s hauntingly beautiful. With its long barrel-vaulted archway, it resemble a serene chapel. The sun filters in through the skylights, flooding the corridor, and adding, rather ironically, an open feel to the prison.

The architectural gem seemed a model prison, built on benevolence. Yet as the world’s first true penitentiary opened its doors in October 1829, a new form of cruelty was born: The Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement. The prisoners ate, slept, showered and exercised alone. And the guards wore woollen socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps.

As I look at the crumbling cells, I picture the inmates who were under constant watch, and didn’t speak to another soul for days. No wonder ESP drove many to insanity.

Thankfully, public criticism, coupled with overcrowding, led to the end of the Pennsylvania system in ESP in 1913. As inmates mingled, the story picked up pace. I see a recreation of Al Capone’s cell just as it looked when it was home to the notorious mobster. Outside the cell lies a picture of Capone exiting Philadelphia City Hall with his entourage. He is dressed sharply in a double-breasted suit and is shielding his face with a fedora from trigger-happy journalists. ESP was where ‘Scarface’ got his first taste of prison, serving nine months for carrying an unlicenced revolver. Just like the original, the recreated cell, too, has two cots — one for Capone and the other for embezzler Bill Coleman; a rag-rug made with scraps of cloth salvaged from prison uniforms and linen, and a radio to satisfy his love for waltz.

I learn about notable ESP inmates such as ‘Slick Willie’ or William Sutton (1901-80) who started his career-in-crime at the age of nine. I stand in cellblock 7 where I learn that Slick Willie tried to escape through a tunnel, from this very block. But he, and nine others, failed.

Over the years, about a hundred inmates tried to flee, but only one — Leo Callahan — avoided recapture. In 1923, when Callahan was 22 years old, he was sentenced to 18 years in jail for robbery, larceny, assault and battery with intent to kill. He climbed the 30ft-high walls with a ladder put together by another inmate, and was never seen again.

Yet another prominent inmate was Pep, the cat killer. Pep was a black Labrador retriever who came to ESP in 1924. It is said that Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania sentenced the canine to life without parole, for killing his wife’s beloved cat. But new-found evidence absolves Pep of the heinous crime; it seems Pinchot was inspired by his Maine counterpart to donate a dog to the facility.

The prison functioned from 1829 to 1971, but sometime in the ’30s, its heating and plumbing started giving way. After being abandoned for many years, it reopened in 1994 as a tourist attraction. More than 30,000 people visit the ESP every year and a top attraction here is a Halloween activity called ‘Terror behind the walls’. It is a night tour of the prison, complete with special audio-visual effects and actors who masquerade as creatures of the netherworld. The less adventurous stick to daylight activities — such as Ron Johnson’s talk on his personal journey of becoming a fitness trainer after serving in prison. The event, scheduled for May 16, includes a fitness class in the yard.

Ironically the crumbling walls, chipped paint and overall decay add to its appeal; Hollywood will agree as many films were shot here. In the 1997 film 12 Monkeys starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, ESP was used as a mental hospital; in the 2000 release Animal Factory, the penitentiary became a prison in decline; the cover of Sting’s 2001 album All this time was photographed here; the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures also featured ESP for paranormal activity.

Even as I look at the historic, haunting edifice, I wonder how far the American justice system has evolved. The Prisons Today exhibition gives me the low-down: Since the closure of ESP, there has been a 600 per cent rise in the number of people incarcerated in the US. There are now 2.2 million people behind bars in the country. The numbers, however, don’t bear any correlation with the crime rate. Instead they reflect changes in policies: New drug laws and greater use of prison as punishment, for instance.

While touring a prison has been dubbed by some as voyeuristic, I can’t deny that stepping into ESP makes me think about the plight of inmates. In doing this, it serves as a catalyst for change.

Kiran Mehta is a journalist based in Mumbai

Published on March 12, 2020

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