I have spent my entire life attending school, and that school is the school some people refer to as “hard knocks”. Now I am not claiming to be some tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks, but I am a firm believer in the fact that screwing up in life (to a point) is okay. The more I screw up, the more I learn not to do it again, and the better I get at life. Now I do my best and succeed in not making a lot of mistakes and I am pretty proud of that. And the more I go through life, the better it gets. I mean, that’s the point right? Learn from your mistakes and get better at life. Well, I try to apply this to everything. I don’t get too mad when I screw up, and if I do, it doesn’t last. I know, it’s a learning and growing experience. This story is about one of those screw-ups.
Rewind the clock, 20, yes 20 years. My mom passed shortly after I was 28 years old, and like all people do when someone they care about in life passes, I took it pretty hard. To ease the pain a bit I liked to have a drink now and then (not a good choice by the way, hard knocks, blah, blah). And in doing so, once in a while I would throw a party and invite some friends over to ease their pain as well. Everyone has some pain to ease, even if they don’t know it. One such occasion I sauntered off to my local beverage mart and picked up a keg of beer and a tap to go along with it for the party. Now, back in the day, you had to leave a deposit, and that was usually a signed check for fifty or so dollars to cover the tap if you decided to thieve it. So, I gave the nice people my check, lugged the keg in the trunk, and with the tap in my back pocket proceeded to scurry back home and set up the party of all parties. Now I know you are thinking, one keg, the party of all parties? Really? I assure you, there would be more alcohol. In fact that party went on for about 2 weeks and that’s where the trouble set in. During that 2 weeks, I changed jobs, moved my bank accounts, left my girlfriend, and got told that I was never part of my family. With all of that spinning in my head I realized that I had not returned the borrowed beer tap yet. So I ran over to the beverage mart and returned the tap and thanked them for contributing to the better side of my last two weeks. That following Monday, at 6am I got a knock on my door. Normally I wouldn’t bother answering a knock that early but the knock seemed pretty determined, so yep, I answered the door….in my underwear. There stood two local police officers, amused at my attire. Confused, I asked them if there was anything I could do for them, pants-less and all. The officers kinda chuckled and asked if I was who I was, and of course I said yes. They explained that I was under arrest for fraud and had to go downtown. Now I was still in quite a fog, and all I could think to ask was, “is it okay if I put my pants on”? (My friend John would be proud) They said, “yes” and I got dressed. Upon me stepping out my door and onto my front porch I was cuffed and stuffed into the back of a patrol car. All I could think at this point was, great, I am going to be late the very first day at my new job. Funny how some screw-ups tend to doggy pile on all at once. The officers were pleasant enough and explained that this was standard procedure and everyone was treated the same. Sitting with cuffs on in the back of a cramped cop car is very uncomfortable FYI. That was only the start of it. Next I was taken down to the police station and had to go through being strip searched (should stayed in my underwear), getting fingerprinted, booked, and then had to sit in a small room with a suspected drug dealer, rapist, and a couple of burglars while waiting to see the judge and still confused as to why I was even there. Finally after about 40 minutes, which seemed like 4 days, I got to see the judge. He explained that the reason I was arrested was for bouncing a check at a local beverage mart. Well, it seems that even though I took the tap back, they decided to cash my deposit check anyway. A check that was at a bank that I no longer did business with. I explained to the judge that I had taken the tap back and all was good and that if he would just call the beverage mart, they could verify. He called for a recess and said that he would check it out. Back to my friends in the little room. 15 minutes or so went by and I was called back in. The judge said he made the call and that I was right and all was good. He ended his scolding of me with, “Next time Mr. Wheeler, Let’s make sure it’s the BEER we keep on ice, instead of you”. Now normally, that would have been funny but after they humility that I had been put through, it wasn’t. Today of course, as I look back, it is pretty funny. But the big point of this whole thing is that I learned a lesson that day. Never serve beer from a keg at your party! Oh, and that I NEVER want to go to jail or prison. Ever!
Turns out 20 years later, where do I end up? Back in the slammer. But, this prison is actually a tourist attraction. This summer, my long time friends Walter Arnold and Louis Quattrini, both very fine photographers in their own right, decided that it had been long enough, it was time to visit Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. Look for links to their stories at the end of this article.
Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary, despite the fact that the Walnut Street Jail, which opened in 1776, was called a “penitentiary” as early as 1790 . The word “penitentiary” derives from the word “penitence.” Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or Separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” (an actual dog) to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.
On April 3, 1945, a major prison escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton) who over the course of a year managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot (30 m) tunnel under the prison wall to freedom. During renovations in the 1930s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were also discovered.
It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
The prison was closed and abandoned in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, located in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The City of Philadelphia purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping it. The site had several proposals, including a mall, and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the old prison walls.
During the abandoned era (from closing until the late 80s) a “forest” grew in the cell blocks and outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats.
In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. In 1994, Eastern State opened to the public for historic tours. The pen’s entire history, and it is a big one can be found by clicking on the link at the end of this article.
Nothing too crazy here, drive to Philly, pay for your ticket and have at it. Although the prison is now a tourist attraction, they have gone to great lengths to preserve the abandonment side of the facility. You wont see new benches or doors inside. This place is pretty much the way it grew over the years. The tour is a set your own pace tour although there are guides that are very informative and helpful. For the three of us, we just wanted to be let loose and do our thing. So that is exactly what we did. The grounds are huge and there are some off-limits areas for paid group rentals only. But, certain times of the day, depending on the traffic, they really aren’t off limits. You enter through a large gate at the front of the prison on Fairmount Ave. Then through a check-in area to the right that actually goes underground then out into the prison grounds. (Click the photos for a larger view)
The stone work here is amazing and believe it or not, mostly built by the prisoners themselves. The walls here are 30feet tall with lookout towers built like castle rooks at each corner.
We make our way into the first arm of this “Wagon Wheel” designed prison. As you can see, they have not impeded much of natures reclamation of the building.
From there, the three of us disperse into the enormous structure. The first cell block is a long hall lined with cells, most have had the doors removed so you can peer inside. Most of the cells are identical in structure, yet different in decay. You find yourself having to look into every cell and see what is what. Here is a peek into my exploration of the first cell block.
Some of the places I visit are very cathedral-like, and ESP is no exception.
Some cells are decked out more than others due to visitors moving objects over the years or items lost to weather damage or vandalism.
Amazingly textured walls, windows and doorways are everywhere and a treat for the photographer ready to position and wait for the shot.
After getting some shots from the first cell block I make my way to the hub. A tour guide here tells me about the cool rafter design and how it was not only built by the inmates but several of them signed the rafters before they were covered. She points out the places where they are signed and I try to capture the scene. If you click the photo and enlarge it, you can see the signatures and dates scrawled on the rafters in the upper left of the photo.
Around the hub I get a chance to peer down some of the “closed” cell blocks. This one looks particularly creepy.
I wonder back out another hallway and to another larger cell block.
This block too is filled with confusingly configured cells. All different, all unique, all cold and somewhat disturbing.
As I head back to the yard I stop for a couple of detail shots that catch my eye.
Making my way into the yard I find old benches, cornerstone markers, some unique architecture and something strange.
In the yard I come across an old greenhouse. While it is not uncommon for prisons to have these, I do discover something strange about this one.
I didn’t notice this until I was processing these photos. In the upper left you can clearly see the outline of a crow, or raven in the back of the greenhouse.
Slowly I make my way around the yard, keeping an eye out for my friends. I decide to give one of the corner crows nests a closer look.
The first thing you notice is how narrow the steel door is to this tower. This door, heavily fortified was maybe 1.5ft wide by 5ft tall. One can only guess this was done on purpose in case of a prison riot. Keeping passages narrow and short keeps the amount of rioters bottle-necked. An old Spartan trick that still rings true today. Here is some up-close detail of the door and crows nest.
Just in time, Walter and Lou show up in the yard. Walter informs me of a couple of hard to get to shots and I head off to attempt them. First stop is death row. There was no executions performed at Eastern State Penitentiary but death row inmates were housed there before being shipped out to meet their faith.
This part of the prison must have been locked up tight over the abandoned years as most of the cells are well preserved as is the electric door control panel. Here is a close up look at the switches that kept the bad guys at bay.
Two other spots he leads me to feature fenced off areas. Luckily, I am able to get my camera over the fence to get the shot. This is one of my favorite shots of the day.
Next tough-to-reach shot is the “hall of broken doors” as we liked to call it. This seems to be a storage area for all of the removed doors for the prison. There is more here though, than meets the eye.
All throughout the prison there artist installations featuring anything from videos, to settings, and stained glass appliques as seen in this large cell.
This artwork is by artist Judith Schaechter and it features some fairly bizarre and potent imagery.
A couple of other detail shots from this same area.
Walter, Lou and I reconvene in the yard and are met up by one of the tour guides. She kindly invites us to follow her on a couple of private tours to normally restricted areas. What could be better right? So off we go to the first area which is probably the most nature reclaimed area of the prison. The decay here is much more advance than it is in other areas of the prison.
For me, this is the best part of the whole prison. As you probably know, I am a huge fan of nature and decay combined. I think it portrays the true power of nature to overcome mans construction. It is around us everywhere, all of the time. Even better when it is in-your-face evident.
Many odd remnants of the old prison are in this location. Here are some detail shots of the decay.
Our guide informs us of another exclusive mini tour in 15 minutes and instructs us where to meet up. In the mean time, we hit another cell block to see what we can discover. I quickly find a cell with what appears to be a tree growing through it. Natural light plus decay and nature equals stunning photo opportunities.
Each cell, though nearly identical to the last, offers a different texture and light. The same, only different. Add to this the artist installations and every cell becomes a unique gallery.
Some rooms in the block where not cells at all. These where used for medical, check-in, and guard housing. They were larger and fit well with the wagon wheel design.
Suddenly I hear a shout from a few cells away, “Andy, come check this out”. Walter points out what looks to be a cell with a cage in it. Later, upon further examination we discover that it is just a bunk bed turned on end and positioned in the center of the cell. Places like this are great for pushing the imagination envelope. Needless to say, I prefer to think of it as a cage.
Not only are the cells abundant with details and photogenic materials, so too are the halls. Here are some quick detail shots before we have to meet up with our tour guide again.
Time is running short for the final tour of the day but suddenly I run across something very cool. It’s the prison barber shop!
Across from the barber shop I find another cool artist installation called “Next Year” by artist Lisa Bateman. Inmates at Eastern State were originally denied reading material in their cells, with the exception of the Bible. The bound front pages of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania New Year’s Day newspapers (or in some cases New Year’s Eve papers) provide a timeline of the prison from 1829 through 1971 and of the missing realities, hopes, and dreams unavailable to the incarcerated. Visitors to the site are invited to inhabit the cell while reading the 142 ‘new years’ illuminated in the edition Distractions, distractions. Talk about shooting under time constraints.
Walter pokes his head in and tells me it’s time to meet up with the tour guide. Off to the yard we head through a narrow gated passageway to visit the basketball court and the old chapel building.
The minute we enter the court area we are greeted by this ominous steel guard and his flashlight.
Once we get by the guard, the chapel building lay before us. The guide explains that the building was erected in 1905 and has two levels. The first floor was primarily used for laundry, while the second floor was used for a variety of prison activities, including religious services, movies, concerts, and as a gymnasium. This shot is a super high resolution pano consisting of 23 stitched frames all shot hand held.
Surrounding the chapel are several maintenance buildings and doors.
Some rooms contain evidence of life before decay.
While others are un-reachable or locked up tight.
The view on the way back is quite spectacular. This is the central guard tower as seen from the narrow passage. This was a 6 frame panorama.
We are about to wrap up our day and head out for some incredible Philly Pizza. One last stop to one of the most photographed areas of the prison besides Al Capone’s cell of course. This is cell block 7.
This is one of the few if only places you can gain access to the 2nd floor of a cell block by way of a stairwell.
While you are not allowed to see or access the upper cells here, evidence of prison labor is everywhere.
A quick stop by the Hospital block then off to the yard for one last look around.
The guys and I meet up in the yard for a quick peek at the kitchen building through quite a large and locked fence.
That wraps a very short and sobering day at Eastern State Penitentiary. What an amazing place! If I lived in the area, I would be at this place as often as possible. The staff and management have done a great job to preserve this great piece of American history and others who own properties should take note and follow suit. I look forward to a return to ESP soon! I leave you with a video that I cut featuring my photos and music by Ry Cooder. If you wish to visit ESP, see the links below the video. Thanks for tagging along!
Visit ESP online and find out more information on planning your trip to the museum: