Eastern State Penitentiary is now famous for its Halloween Haunt: Terror Behind the Walls. But in its day, it housed some of the nation's most notorious inmates, from Al Capone to Willie Sutton, and became a model for prison reform.
"For centuries, prisons were designed to punish people, to hurt people, to scare people," says Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. "This was the prison that said, 'Hey, why don't we try and rehabilitate people?'"
The penitentiary closed in 1971 and now offers daily historic tours focused on interpreting criminal justice reform.
"Many of us who work here believe that criminal justice reform is the civil rights issue of our times," Kelley says.
There are two permanent exhibitions. One, a 16-foot tall bar graph known as The Big Graph, shows how the rates of incarceration have increased sharply over time.
"We lead the world; no one else is even close in the percentage of people we put in prison," Kelley says.
The other is called Prisons Today: Questions in the age of Mass Incarceration.
"It has a video that summarizes all the policy decisions over the last 50 years," Kelley says.
And visitors who enter the exhibit are asked if they've ever broken the law. If they say yes?
"They are faced with a wall of confessions," Kelley says. "About half of those confessions are written by visitors to the exhibit and about half of them are written by people serving time in prison -- try to guess which is which."
The museum is now working on a new project called Hidden Lives Illuminated set to launch in late summer. It will tell the story of incarceration through the eyes of inmates.
"We've been teaching screenwriting and storytelling and voice coaching to people who are incarcerated and now we're teaching animation," Kelley explains.
The prisoners are now creating animated short films that will be projected onto the stone walls of the penitentiary from Aug. 15-Sept. 12.
"The literal voices of incarcerated people will frame the whole conversation." Kelley says.
Eastern State Penitentiary | Tickets | Facebook
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily for tours
2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Historic tours at Eastern State Penitentiary
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