Eastern State Penitentiary: A Museum with a Mission.
Tom, one of the directors of the museum, met us at the cold, stoney entrance of the 19th century Penitentiary. Guards closed me in as I arrived, the gates making an eerie squeaky sound when they closed, which ended with a cold, metallic “CLAMP!” as they shut tightly. I felt fooled into entering, as the guard smiled coyly at me when I announced “Temple” upon my arrival. “Sure”, he responded with a twisted smile that caught up with me later.
The long, narrow stone hallway made me wonder how many people had turned around right there and decided to exercise their freedom. I tried to play along, walking as a prisoner may have walked, in rows of two at a steady pace. We entered the recently re-renovated synagogue, which was only welcoming because of the obvious warmth emitting from it. I was surprised at it’s cleanliness and the unimposing smell of the wood around us. Two skylights made the low ceilings tolerable, but I could not help but be claustrophobic here. I almost left the room on several occasions, but Tom was just too interesting.
Upon flipping down one of the wooden benches, he revealed the information placards and at the same time, the old entrances from the cell blocks to the once tiny open-air cell yards that at one time belonged to each cell, of which 4 were combined together at some point and given a roof to create the synagogue for the prison’s Jewish population. The walls smelled like stone. The width of each cell gave an indication of the size of the living spaces in which the prisoners of Eastern State resided during their sentences there. They were, in a word, small. I felt crammed in the room, though with 10 others, to begin with.
Here is a photo of Tom revealing the walls of the four cells behind the wooden benches, though you can’t see him.
The revealing wooden panel reminded me of the piece I read in Letting Go? Shared Authority in a User-Driven World which was written by Mary Teeling when she visited the very unique “Dennis Server House Museum” in London. She describes the subtle uses that Dennis had for modern objects from our century, such as his Yankees baseball hat, as being strategically placed on a 19th century table amongst other 19th century things in a mostly 19th century home. These objects manage to co-exist in time, merging the histories of those who lived in the house. Though more intentionally presented here at the prison museum, the mixing of the old with the new allowed the observer to see through layers of time. It also made the synagogue seem all the more cozy, and as is it were part of some kind of seeming evolution of the penitentiary system.
Another example of this evaluation could be seen as the prison yard which was used as a baseball field, which also wasn’t always there. Prisoners; before the yard was opened up, were forced into solitude with only a tiny, individual prison yard. Seems like progress, right?
The next part of our journey revealed big news, and the biggest mission of the prison museum as it stands today. In being the first Penitentiary of it’s kind in the United States, the Eastern State Penitentiary seems to have some blatant contradictions.
But overall the contradictions far surmount the prison’s seeming social advancements. As Tom explained that since 1970, the number of individuals incarcerated in the prison system in the U.S. has sharply increased to astronomical levels, far above the levels of any other country in the World.
The museum’s current grand mission is to bring that information forth into the light, and when you see the larger-than life 3-dimensional bar graph exhibit they build showing the U.S. as literally towering above all other nations in it’s per-capita prison rate, it seems likely that the mission is likely to be accomplished. As visitors flock around the large scale graph and decipher it’s meaning it becomes a un-ignorable punctuation of the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S. or as Tom puts it, “The greatest civil rights disaster of our generation”.
Here, the punctuated “Red” graph bar seems to rise higher than the prison Walls.
I had trouble getting this whole phallic object of prison rates in the picture!!
Zoom in to enjoy the huge discrepancy between Rwanda, the highest rate listed under the U.S., which is up at just under 800 per 100,000 humans!!