From Shawshank to Al Capone's cell, historic prisons captivate tourists

Chicago Tribune

Independence Hall may be one of America’s top tourist attractions, but there was a time in Philadelphia when it played second fiddle to a prison.

A massive fortress that opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary, then on the outskirts of the city, began admitting the curious not long after the convicts.

“In the 1830s and 1840s, you could buy a ticket and come visit Eastern State Penitentiary,” said Sean Kelley, director of interpretation and public programming at what is now a historic site.

“For a couple of years, it was more popular than Independence Hall,” Kelley added. “When Charles Dickens traveled to the United States, he said the two things he most wanted to see on this continent were Niagara Falls and Eastern State Penitentiary.”

The last prisoners left in 1970. The paint is peeling, and some walls are crumbling. But once again, Eastern State is welcoming tourists to what was an experiment in incarceration — one that failed miserably.

The “pen” was the brainchild of a group of 18th-century activists who called themselves the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. They met at the home of one of their founders, Benjamin Franklin.

The civic leaders believed that, at their cores, all men had good hearts and that they would be redeemed through penitence, hence the name of the world’s first penitentiary. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement to consider their misdeeds. Their only reading material was the Bible.

Yet over the decades, in Pennsylvania and across the nation, prison populations soared. Many were repeat offenders.

“In hindsight, it was naive,” Kelley said.

As aging prisons are replaced by more modern institutions, a handful of the old ones, scattered from San Francisco’s Alcatraz to Philly’s Eastern State, welcome both thrill-seekers and the curious. One prison-turned-museum even puts visitors within the same walls as real inmates.

Outsiders can, of course, leave the bars behind at the end of their tour. But the memories of sitting inside a gas chamber will never leave many of those who visit Missouri State Penitentiary.

Less than a mile from the state Capitol in Jefferson City, the prison offers historic tours in the daytime and paranormal tours at night, all with stops at the rusting gas chamber fitted with two metal chairs. On several occasions, two condemned convicts were executed at the same time.

Photos of 39 men and one woman are displayed on a wall just outside the chamber where all of them drew their last breaths.

“People go into there. Some feel an immense sadness. Some feel nothing,” tour coordinator Sheila Sanford said. “You can sit in the chairs, (but) some people say that’s a little morbid.”

Prison folklore is filled with the stories of those who attempted escape, and sometimes succeeded. Visitors to Mansfield, Ohio, hear about a couple of characters — literally — who were successful: Andy Dufresne and Red Redding. They’re better known by the names of the actors who played them, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. The actors spent plenty of time inside the Ohio State Reformatory while filming the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”

The prison had closed four years earlier and was in disrepair when Hollywood folks first set eyes on it.

“‘Shawshank’ really helped save the building,” spokesman Dan Smith said of the prison-turned-museum. “Without that film, the reformatory probably would have been fully torn down.”

On guided and self-guided tours, visitors learn about the history of the reformatory as a working prison and see props from the acclaimed film, based on a Stephen King short story.

“It’s very interactive. You can sit at the warden’s desk. You can go into Brooks’ room,” he said of the cell occupied by “Shawshank” character Brooks Hatlen, played by the late actor James Whitmore.

The reformatory hopes to have an entire “Shawshank” wing — with movie sets and memorabilia — completed in time for the film’s 25th anniversary in 2019.

That same year is expected to bring the Ohio prison back to the big screen with the release of “Escape Plan 3,” starring Sylvester Stallone.

“Probably 90 percent of the film will be (shot) at the reformatory,” Smith said.

In the fall, both Ohio State Reformatory and Eastern State Penitentiary turn into giant haunted houses, with the former hosting “Escape From Blood Prison” (Oct. 12 to Nov. 5) and the latter putting on “Terror Behind the Walls” on select dates through Nov. 11.

Two hundred miles from the Ohio facility, in Jackson, Mich., tourists wander near where inmates are still serving their sentences. Until 10 years ago, Cell Block 7 was the evaluation center for all inmates entering the state prison system. It’s now a museum surrounded by two working prisons.

“You don’t have any contact with current inmates,” museum spokesman Erik Lyman said. “They’re a ways off, but they’re there.”

While incarceration is never considered fun, mobster Al Capone made the most of his time behind bars in Philadelphia.

Captivated by Scarface’s infamy following the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, guards at Eastern State made Capone’s cell downright homey. As modern-day visitors discover, it was furnished in finery — from Oriental rugs on the floor to oil paintings on the walls. He even had an expensive radio.

Nearly 90 years earlier, following Charles Dickens’ visit in 1842, the author wrote of the gloom faced by a typical prisoner: “He is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He is a man buried alive, to be dug out in the slow round of years.”

Fast forwarding to the present, Eastern State features an engaging exhibit about modern-day imprisonment.

The theme — that mass incarceration isn’t working — resonates with many, Kelley said.

“I thought that Bill O’Reilly would be stopping by and calling us out, and it’s been just the opposite,” Kelley said. “A lot of people on the political right and the left want to have this conversation.”

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