Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bleakly Beautiful

You never think, Gosh, I'm going to find myself attracted to a prison, but that is exactly what happened to me when Trees and I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Most of the stops that we took on Trees' visit to Philly were things I'd already done. They were things I loved, of course, but I'd been to THE BELL (which is much smaller than you think) and I'd been to the Rocky Statue (every time someone has ever visited me) and I'd been to the Gates of Hell (Rodin Museum). These are things I love and enjoy, but I'd already been there. I had never toured Eastern State Penitentiary before and I was excited to experience it.

This is kind of what you see when you approach the prison. Imposing stone walls that make it seem almost like a castle. A fortress. It's almost medieval, like a dragon could rise over it at any moment and breathe fire onto the poor bastard below. The day was perfect for us, as you can tell by the dreamy blue sky. These are the only two photos I didn't run through a filter because I thought they were perfect. The color is perfect. It was crisp and both of us wished we'd brought a cardi because we were more than a little chilly.

As you walk through the prison, you can take an audio tour which Steve Buscemi narrates. Some of the actual prison guards and prisoners also make appearances as well as directors and curators of the building. There are even some art installations there which cover a wide variety of topics from transgendered prisoners to how we as a population perceive prisons. One of the really striking art installations compared the prison cells at Guantanamo Bay to the cells at Eastern State Penn by building a replica of the cages that GTMO prisoners are kept in inside one of the Penn cells.

The tour itself does a very good job of pulling emotions from the audience. A few times I felt a little misty or found myself smiling (especially at the story of the 1965 Tunnel Escape which involved Willie Sutton, who I'd heard about before). Speaking of famous criminals, I did take a few pictures of Al Capone's cell. In the tour they said that they put everything back as it really would have been when Capone stayed at Eastern State Penn.

Something I find myself drawn to as an artist, writer or whatever-the-hell-I-am-this-week is crumbling architecture. As someone who likes to read urban fairy tales like Dangerous Angels and I Was a Teenage Fairy and someone who writes paranormal fiction, I find these run down concrete shadows to be a place of magic and tragedy, but triumph for Nature as it slowly reclaims property. Ally-my-darling was intrigued by my use of the phrase bleakly beautiful when describing the prison, but it fits. It was cold, and drafty and open. The walls were made of peeling paint and crumbling brick and rusting metal. There was darkness and shadows and decay, but it was beautiful. It was bleak and beautiful. I wanted to write a story about this place, I wanted to see characters moving in these hard prison walls and feel the heartbeat of the building.

There is also the feeling of being torn - in my head I didn't want to love a place that housed criminals or hatred or sorrow. But I got over that because deep down I'm a lover of cemeteries, too, which is really what this place is, too.

I'm going to leave you with my favorite photos that I took while inside Eastern State Penitentiary. I really enjoyed seeing it, and I can't wait to go back again. It is a beautiful place and I'm glad that there are people devoted to taking care of it.


  1. I think old prisons are fascinating. There is one I got to tour in Maine years ago that was really cool. They're just as much a part of history as anything else!

  2. I also find beauty in decay. Old prisons have that in abundance. Beautiful pictures. I'm glad you have the eyes to see this.

    Oh, and I'm gonna change my name to "Ally-my-darling"!

  3. This is a beautiful post Meghan. Totally capturing how I personally feel about cemeteries. Prisons house some strange birds. Sure they're filled with criminals, but "criminal" doesn't always mean the person was all bad. We all make choices in life, and even some of those bad choices could lead you down roads you would have never traveled before.

    I'm very fond of old abandoned buildings too. I've never gone hunting them, but I highly admire those who do and photograph it for the world to see.

    1. Two points with regard to prisons, Megan. First -- and this is empirically true -- most prison inmates suffer from mental illness. We warehouse our mentally ill in jail instead of treating them like a humane society. Second -- and this is a famous quotation from a famous person -- how a society treats its prisoners is the true measure of the society's civilization.

  4. I really need to visit Eastern State. Great Photos and thanks for sharing.

  5. You've put into words what I never could quite describe. I, too , am a lover of cemeteries. I find them peaceful and beautiful beyond reason. Any place (especially old buildings) that shows its history appeals immensely to me, always has and always will. I can blame the archaeological training, but it was undeniably there since I was a small child. Perhaps because it stimulates the imagination, causing one to wonder about all the stories that had happened there, how many people passed through the place and touched it, the connection you feel to them through the remains of their presence.