Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2022 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
I love taking visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary, in part because it is a great historic place to see in Philadelphia (something people expect when visiting me, a historic preservationist), but also because it is such a reliably satisfying experience. It starts with a little chuckle when they hit “play” on their audio tour headset and learn they’ll be led through one of the country’s oldest prisons by none other than actor Steve Buscemi–the first clue that Eastern State is going to be a little more interesting than your typical historic site visit. Then there’s always the sharp, little intake of breath as they cross the threshold from the drab, asphalt-paved yard into the vaulted, cathedral-like cell block. They step forward slowly, taking in the unexpected magnitude and grandeur of the place, encrusted in layers of chipping paint in its morbidly appealing state of arrested decay. As we ease into the tour, enthusiasm remains high: The prison’s history is engaging and its spaces highly Instagrammable. But my favorite part starts when we get to The Big Graph.
At 16 feet tall, the 3,500-pound plate steel sculpture is impossible to miss. As the focal point of a large courtyard once used as the prison’s baseball field, The Big Graph makes visible, in a cool, unemotional tone, the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States since 1900. The statistics also highlight the extreme, racial disparity in those numbers and compare incarceration rates in the United States with the rest of the world. Thoroughly immersed in the world of Eastern State’s past, visitors confront the harsh realities of the present. “The United States imprisons more of its population than any other nation by far,” a sign on the graph reads. “Canada, Australia, and the Nations of Western Europe all have rates of incarceration less than one quarter that of the United States.” Constructing a clear through line for visitors that moves from past to present, Eastern State Penitentiary has revolutionized the way historic sites engage with contemporary issues.
When it opened in 1829, Eastern State, the world’s first “penitentiary,” revolutionized the way the United States approached imprisonment. Isolating prisoners in individual cells, progressive social reformers of the time believed, would encourage reflection, remorse, and repentance. Architect John Haviland designed the complex in a “hub and spoke” configuration, allowing for easy surveillance by a lone prison guard, who would sit in the central hub. Each cell was equipped with its own small exercise yard and a skylight, the light and vaulted ceilings meant to invoke a church-like setting. By the time Eastern State closed in 1971, the founders’ idealistic vision for the prison as a means for penitence and spiritual awakening, manifested in John Haviland’s architecture, was long gone. Cells were now overcrowded and the conditions uniformly dismal.
The 11-acre campus then sat vacant for well over a decade, a grim and hulking presence in a gentrifying Fairmount, rebranded by real estate agents as “the Art Museum Area.” As the years passed, trespassers broke the prison’s windows, and exposure to the elements left its interiors thoroughly weathered. As those familiar with the site recall, an urban forest even sprung up in and around the ruins. The City of Philadelphia eventually took title to the building in 1980 and in the mid-’80s transferred it to the Redevelopment Authority, which put out a call for proposals to redevelop it. An ad in The Philadelphia Inquirer specified that the property was suitable for commercial, residential, or mixed residential/commercial development. “Preservation of the historic buildings within the walls will be considered a positive factor in the evaluation of competing proposals,” it read. Saving the historic site seemed to depend on practical, commercially viable adaptive reuse–as condos, a shopping center, or even a hotel.
Meanwhile, a group of historians and preservationists saw Eastern State’s potential as a powerful and compelling historic site and sought to sway the city to reconsider plans to alter or repurpose the penitentiary. A committee of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia formed the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force to advocate for the prison’s preservation and made a persuasive case to former Mayor Wilson Goode. Thanks to the task force’s success, stabilization of the site began in 1991, funded by a large grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, as it is now officially known, opened for public tours in 1994.
A Stabilized Ruin
One of the task force’s key members, Sally Elk, has served as the president and CEO of Eastern State for 21 years. She has overseen the physical preservation of the prison and all of the complexity that it entails, like ensuring the crumbling and asbestos-laden walls are safe to host more than 300,000 visitors a year. Preserving the prison in its deteriorated state as a “stabilized ruin” was both a practical and philosophical decision. Restoring the structure to anything near its original, 19th century condition would have been cost prohibitive. At the same time, leaving the site mostly as is allows visitors to comprehend the historical layers of the place.
“When I walked in here the first time I was blown away,” said Elk, who, from the beginning, saw, along with the task force, Eastern State’s potential as a venue for meaningful dialogue and discussion on the history of incarceration. Together, they worked to identify specific ways the site’s past could speak to and connect with the present. “It’s harnessing the power [of the site] and doing justice to the subject matter,” Elk said of the organization’s goal. “We haven’t done too well as a species with crime and punishment.” At the time, that impulse was at the cutting edge for interpretive sites. Still, some public historians and advisers criticized the neutral tone of the site’s interpretation and pressed for Eastern State to take a stance on the failures of the criminal justice system. Other critics felt that the experience of the place as an empty and desolate ruin, combined with an emphasis on the 19th century history and architectural design, distanced the place from its immediate, more problematic past.
Connecting to Contemporary Issues
But leadership, never losing sight of their original vision, continued to seek ways to generate meaningful, thought-provoking dialogue through the link between past and present. Around 2012, says Sean Kelley, who now serves as Eastern State’s senior vice president and director of interpretation, “We started saying, how come we’re not better at this? Why have we been struggling so much to connect this story to contemporary issues?” In response, Eastern State adopted a new interpretive plan that outlined major themes for the site to address. One of those was providing a place for reflection on the current criminal justice system in our country.
It was a critical moment for the institution, according to Lauren Zalut, Eastern State’s director of education and tour programs. The organization’s actions didn’t yet live up to their intentions. Zalut pointed to an underlying discomfort with the language surrounding the issues back then: “We wouldn’t have even used the term ‘mass incarceration.’ We really just talked about ‘prisons today’ or ‘contemporary connections.’” A fear of being perceived as politically partisan was undermining Eastern State’s sense of purpose. Since her arrival, Zalut has been one of the staff members who has pushed the organization to step out of its comfort zone.
Throughout the last decade, Eastern State has stepped up to routinely deliver thought-provoking exhibitions and initiatives centered on contemporary issues of incarceration, criminal justice, prison reform, and race. By inviting artists who could connect firsthand with these pressing themes and create installations that could engage and even confront audiences more directly with these issues, Kelley said, Eastern State consciously steered away from the “voice of God” tone that museums typically take on to meet an unspoken expectation to remain neutral or unbiased. “Museums have this belief that they are neutral spaces and that we should be neutral parties and it’s disingenuous,” he explained. “Of course we have roles in these conversations.”
The Big Graph
The introduction of The Big Graph as a new stop on the tour put issues of race and mass incarceration right at the center of the conversation. Kelley recalled feeling intimidated to ask the staff to initiate what he feared would be challenging dialogue with visitors on a daily basis. “It felt scary as hell,” he recalled. But it turned out his fears that the historic site’s board of directors would feel divided over the political nature of the message, or that the message would feel “preachy” and visitors would be put off, were all unfounded.
“I had all of these predictions for what was going to happen when we built that graph, and I got all of them exactly wrong,” Kelley said. Support among the staff for the project was surprisingly strong. Now, a major reason that people want to come work at Eastern State is so they can participate in this ongoing conversation. Now, it’s hard to imagine the notion that they might shy away from these issues, he says. “It’s unimaginable that we wouldn’t be having these conversations at Eastern State.”
Zalut and Kelley have worked closely to develop the historic site’s major interpretive initiatives including The Big Graph, Hidden Lives Illuminated, where animated short films made by currently incarcerated people were projected onto Eastern State’s walls, and the Returning Citizens Tour Guide Program, where recently incarcerated men and women join Eastern State’s staff as tour guides. With the design of the award-winning Prisons Today exhibition, Eastern State broke away completely from any notion of neutrality. With that exhibit, which examines the catastrophic rise in incarceration from the 1970s to today, Eastern State, said Zalut, really found its “museum voice.” The exhibition, which has been on display since May 2016, exposes the mechanisms behind the explosive growth in incarceration since the 1970s, particularly the bipartisan support for the war on drugs, now widely recognized as a massive policy failure. It compellingly presents statistics that bring to light inherent contradictions in what we in the U.S. choose to fund with our tax dollars, with far more invested in incarceration than in supporting communities’ basic needs, such as housing and education.
Pushed by an adviser to examine how they were framing the exhibit, and incorporating input from currently and formerly incarcerated people, the staff realized they had to take a definitive stance on mass incarceration rather than present the issue as a debate. “[In that exhibit] we actually say mass incarceration isn’t working, and we stopped using the word ‘inmate,’” said Zalut, who has continued working to engage returning citizens in Eastern State’s interpretive programming.
Zalut and Kelley both noted that Eastern State’s visitor base is primarily white, and the majority of visitors report no connection to prison. In Zalut’s opinion, a visit to Eastern State presents a key opportunity for the public to learn about incarceration. “Eastern State needs to be the platform and the convener [for these conversations],” she said. She also believes that Eastern State can set an example for the museum world when it comes to hiring people who have been incarcerated. “If we want to be the national prison museum, we need to have formerly incarcerated people on our staff and in leadership positions,” she said. “And, when it comes to museums and the historic preservation field, Eastern State needs to be leading fair chance recruiting within these sectors.”
Assured in their new role, Eastern State rewrote their mission statement in 2017 to read: “Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.”
The past year and a half have brought some difficult challenges. Pausing tours and education initiatives during the pandemic has been a setback, especially since a considerable percentage of the organization’s budget derives from tours and in-person experiences. The education team is also grieving the loss of a beloved and integral member of the staff due to COVID-19. But the tragedies and turmoil of these times have also brought conversations around race, justice, and policing even more to the fore. “People are more receptive and ready to have these conversations and that is really exciting,” said Zalut. As Eastern State has reopened to visitors, she’s ready to catch back up to where they left off. “It is our job to make this building matter to people.”