In the Slammer – A Day at Eastern State Penitentiary

Charles Dickens and I have something in common. Both of us visited Eastern State Penitentiary. Dickens would write in his travel journal, “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” I encourage you to visit Eastern State and draw your own conclusions.

 

Charles Dickens' American Notes

Charles Dickens’ American Notes

 

My husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon touring Philadelphia’s historic prison. We last visited several years ago when wearing a hard hat and signing a waiver were required for admission. Today those measures are no longer necessary.

 

Looking into Cell

Looking into Cell

 

The guided tours were sold out the day we visited, but the audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi was informative. When the initial tour was complete, we were able to explore the property on our own. There were other points of interest to find that also had a corresponding audio track.

 

View Down a Cellblock

View Down a Cellblock

 

Architect John Haviland submitted the winning plans for Eastern State. His wheel and spoke design won him $100.00 and the structure would be the model for future institutions. Eastern State would have central heat and running water before the White House.

In the beginning, Eastern State reformed prisoners through isolation. Each cell had its own exercise yard which was enclosed on all sides, but outside air was plentiful as the top of the area was open. Each cell contained a door leading out to this area.

 

View From Inmate Exercise Area Looking at Cell Door

View From Inmate Exercise Area Looking at Cell Door

 

To further isolate the inmates, whenever a prisoner was moved about the facility, they wore a burlap hood to prevent any contact with other inmates. A prisoner could spend their entire sentence at Eastern State Penitentiary and never see another person. Visitors were not allowed at Eastern State for the first 10 years of its existence. After a decade, a no-contact visitation room was used.

If an inmate caused a problem during their stay, they would find themselves in the punishment cells, also known as The Hole and Klondike. Having toured this area of the prison as part of the Hands on History program, the experience must have been horrifying for the prisoners. The cells were located below ground. There were no windows and it was impossible to stand up straight. The low ceilings were designed to force the inmate into an uncomfortable position. This area of the prison had no plumbing, and each inmate was allowed only a bedpan in their cell. The prisoners were left alone except when meals were brought. A large metal structure closed over the stairs to the punishment cells to prevent escape in the unlikely event the inmates breached their cell doors. People could spend months below ground and some would lose their sight when they emerged. As a result, use of the punishment cells was discontinued and the practice deemed inhumane.

 

The Hole

The Hole

 

During our time at Eastern State we toured Death Row. It should be noted that no one was ever put to death at this facility. The condemned were sent to the State Correctional Institute at Rockville for execution, which is still used for that purpose today.

 

Death Row Exterior

Death Row Exterior

Death Row Interior

Death Row Interior

 

One of the most (in)famous occupants at Eastern State was gangster Al Capone. He served the first prison time of his life here. Capone received an eight-month sentence for carrying a concealed weapon. Because of his notoriety, he was allowed items in his cell that other inmates were not, and his cell can be viewed today.

 

Al Capone's Cell

Al Capone’s Cell

 

Inmate C2559 was another popular inmate at Eastern State. Pep, a black Labrador Retriever, was rumored to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat. For this crime the governor sentenced the dog to life without parole, although his guilt has come into question. Pep’s supporters believe he was given to the prison not to serve a sentence, but to serve as a mascot. A Maine prison had been gifted a dog for this purpose, and the governor may have donated his dog. Guilty or innocent, we know Pep resided at Eastern State for approximately 10 years.

 

Pep’s Mug Shot

Fairly new to Eastern State is the Towercam. Visitors can control the guard tower cameras to get a good look around the sprawling property. It gives an idea of how much ground the guards patrolled.

Guard Tower

Guard Tower

Guard Towercam

Guard Towercam

 

I enjoyed my time spent at Eastern State, and suggest allowing a few hours to explore the facility. I have also experienced Terror Behind the Walls at Halloween and while that is a scary good time, there is nothing like touring the facility in the daytime. Seeing the real conditions inmates were subjected to is far more disturbing than any haunted house. However, Terror Behind the Walls funds the prison to keep it running, so please support the haunt in the fall. You will not be disappointed in either attraction.

The Write Stuff

My favorite room in my house is the smallest. A scant 10 by 8 feet, it’s not much larger than a prison cell. Perhaps that is ironic, considering that is where I lock myself away to work. Or I should say, where I’m supposed to work, in my own self-inflicted jail.

View of the War Room

View of the War Room

I can’t remember why we chose the smallest room for the computer, but that’s how it worked out. Other electronic gizmos call this room home, including a printer, a digital camera, two e-readers, a tablet, and another laptop. I call it the nerve center of the house, a sort of control room.

It’s the only room on the second floor of the house that’s used, so it’s away from the normal household commotion. It was designed to be my little oasis away from it all, surrounded by my favorite things. Computers and books, what else do I need? They feed the mind while food and water sustain the body.

Got Books?

Got Books?

Behind the thin window treatments are room-darkening curtains. No bright light for me, I prefer it dark and cozy. I can’t see the weather through the material, but I can imagine there is a blizzard or a horrible thunderstorm raging outside, anything to emphasize the cozy feeling.

Let There Be (Limited) Light

Let There Be (Limited) Light

In the corner is the official chair where all my short stories and blogs come to life. Or where they’re supposed to be written.  The chair and ottoman are comfortable, and each offers an optional massage with heat. To the right is a bright lamp, and to the left is a table to place my beverage. With the lap desk balanced just right, I can read or write with ease.

The Official Reading and Writing Space

The Official Reading and Writing Space

I have always done my best work in near silence, and I tend to write longhand (always in pencil) before typing it into the computer. This is a habit I wish I could break, as it isn’t the best course of action for my chronic tendonitis. My hands and wrists would thank me for it.

It’s the perfect workspace for me, so what’s the problem? After working a day job and finally getting home to my family, I feel guilty spending time in my office/library/computer room away from my beloved and the fur kids. The door is closed to shut out distractions and four-legged intruders, but I can’t help but feel I should be on the first floor with them.

As it stands, I rarely work in my oasis. I find myself on the couch, at the dining room table, and when it gets warm, the patio. I usually have a white noise app running in my ears to help me concentrate. I wonder if I can squeeze in another bookshelf if I remove the chair from the corner of my little room.

Monsters, Killers and Maniacs Oh My!

Another great Monster Mania weekend has passed. One highlight for me was having my copy of Chain Saw Confidential – How We Made the World’s Most Notorious Horror Movie signed by the author Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The book chronicles his experience in making the classic film. It joins other books on my shelves penned by such horror legends as Kane Hodder and Robert Englund.

Autographed Book

Autographed Book

Another person I was looking forward to meeting was Victoria Price, the daughter of the late horror icon, Vincent Price. She signed a lobby card of her and her father and posed for a picture. I sat through her presentation of “Vincent Price Remembered” which I found fascinating. Vincent’s grandson Jody was also in attendance, as he resides in New Jersey.

The program was a refreshing change from the usual question and answer panels. Victoria spoke not only of her father’s film career, but also of his private life. Vincent was an avid deep sea fisherman and art lover. When he first heard the audience voice their displeasure at his turn as a villain in a stage production, that was when he knew what type of character he wanted to play.  Their booing encouraged him to seek other such roles.

Victoria recalled trick or treating in Beverly Hills as a child. Her father would accompany her, and he delighted in providing scares along the way.  She also revealed that he would read bedtime stories, but none of the scary variety.

The presentation included slides to accompany Victoria’s narration. At the conclusion was a clip of Vincent speaking at the roast of Bette Davis. An hour didn’t seem long enough to summarize a life well lived. This was my favorite part of the convention, so much so that I was inspired to add a few Vincent Price films to my video library.

Victoria Price 2

Victoria Price

Monster Mania also featured a Cujo reunion, which included a question and answer panel with stars Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Danny Pintauro, and director Lewis Teague. I learned from the director that 11 dogs were used in the film, 1 Rottweiler and the rest St. Bernards. Although the movie took place in the high heat of the summer, in reality the actors were freezing during the shoot and Dee Wallace said the animal actors were cared for more than their human counterparts.

I thoroughly enjoyed the behind the scenes look at Cujo. Actress and animal lover Dee Wallace generously donated an autographed picture to me, which I will give to Pet Savers (a Gloucester County organization) for a future raffle benefitting local animals. Her gift was very much appreciated.

Dee Wallace

Dee Wallace

The convention was crowded as usual, but I managed to accomplish what I set out to do. My book was signed and I met Victoria Price. The panels and autograph were added bonuses I did not expect. I learned more about iconic films and the actors who starred in them. Who knew horror conventions could be educational as well as fun?

School’s Out for Winter

With the unusually heavy snowfall this winter, I thought about a thankless job, one I am glad not to have.  A thick skin is required for the person responsible for closing the schools.  Said skin must be almost impenetrable to stave off all the parental whining that will surely ensue when a decision is reached.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.  If schools close before the first flake falls from the sky, there are complaints.  If the administration calls school too close to start time, there are more complaints as working parents scramble to find childcare.  There is concern that the kids will have to make up the lost days and extend the school year a bit further into the summer, possibly delaying planned vacations.  Parents reason that this is why their kids are not learning as much as they should, because they are never in school.  How much do you remember accomplishing the last week of school? If a few days are added at the end of the year, is it really a big deal?

Besides the kiddies, there are other people to consider.  If it’s deemed too treacherous for your kid to go to school, it’s equally treacherous for staff.  If a school bus has difficulty negotiating sloppy roadways, passenger vehicles won’t fare any better.

When it comes to an extended school year, school staff are equally inconvenienced.  Just like other families, they have busy schedules and plans, too.  It’s not only an issue for parents and students.

If there is inclement weather and schools remain open, there are even more rants.  Given we are such a litigious society, if little Johnny fell walking to the bus stop, or got frostbite while waiting for the bus, his parents would call their attorney faster than their doctor.  Sad but true.  Of course, frostbite won’t be an issue for the student who waits in the comfy confines of their parent’s car for the bus to arrive, never mind that the bus stop is across from the house.

To close or not to close, that is the school administration’s question.  Either choice lends itself to parental scrutiny, but at least there is some solace knowing there will be an upcoming summer vacation.  Of course, the length of the vacation is to be determined, as Mother Nature still has us in her icy grip.