It was the end of an amazing few weeks. After more than forty years on the job, it was time to step away and slip into a more leisurely lifestyle. After months of planning, my first day of retirement would be on my birthday. I had no clue what my future would hold. I was anxious to explore but fearful of what I might discover. I was a bit of a workaholic, but let go easily when greeted by my recliner. The adjustment might not be easy but my head and a notebook were full of ideas. My new running shoes were beginning to feel comfortable.
My first born son would give me a unique and thoughtful gift to celebrate both milestones… We would spend a couple of days together down I-95 in Philadelphia. He traveled there several times and enjoyed the culinary and cultural offerings of the City of Brotherly Love.
There was one place he knew I’d love…
Operational from 1829 to 1971, Eastern State Penitentary was America’s largest and most expensive public structure upon it’s completion. ESP became a model for hundreds of prisons worldwide. It was here that reform rather than punishment was first practiced and prisoners were kept isolated in their own cells. This was a new system of incarceration. Cells had running water, flush toilets and heating but it was no country club.
The toilets were flushed remotely. Twice a week.
ESP grew as the inmate population exploded, and this over crowding eventually was the demise of the solitary confinement model. The prison today is wheel-like, with cell blocks radiating outward from a central hub. We wandered the facility peering into the tiny cells, each one in a different state of decay. Light came from “the Window of God,” a small single light source in the rear of the cells. It was cool in the corridors, the yard and ball field were hot. The halls grew deserted and the mood grew more solemn as we had greater stretches to ourselves.
As our visit drew to a close, we stopped at Al Capone’s cell. Unlike all the others, it was fully furnished and carpeted. Rank has it’s privileges.
A very diverse population has passed through the doors of Eastern State. The inmates enjoyed sports, television and a somewhat more humane incarceration than those held in other states. The prison has been a tourist destination since the 19th century, once visited by Charles Dickens. It is now a preserved ruin and an interesting part of American history.
My son and I spent a few hours wandering this amazing place. Now we needed a beer…