Our 2010 Road Trip, Part 14: Philly Prison Blues

Cellblocks Above + Below!

The photos you’re about to see come from a place where several reality shows have filmed their stars pretending to chase ghosts and failing to catch any.

We had time for one last stop before we exited the Philadelphia area. Anne loves American history. I love places with exotic feels and/or unique architecture. So we compromised and went to jail for it.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.

After the record-breaking nine-day epic that was our 2009 trek to the farthest reaches of South Dakota, we decided to scale back in 2010 with a shorter drive in a different direction. We previously drove through the corners of Pennsylvania in 2003 and 2004 — through Washington in the southwest corner on our way to Washington, DC; and through Erie in the northwest corner on our way to Niagara Falls. This year, that extra-large wooded state would be the center of our attention.

As one of America’s original 13 colonies, Pennsylvania contains multitudes of U.S. history and authentic places and things from centuries past. For the three of us, we figured it would do well. Anne is a big history buff. I’m willing to drive just about anywhere within reason. My son would be dragged along for whatever ride until such time as he developed a separate life and identity.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

DAY SIX: Saturday, July 24th.

Our hotel breakfast was one last rerun. Having a bundled hotel/breakfast package saved on our meal budget, but the options were the same as your average convenience store. I wouldn’t say I felt cheated, but my appreciation had waned by the week’s end.

Before heading in the direction of home, I drove us east toward Philly one last time for one last stop. Several long minutes later, we wound up twenty-five miles east of the correct exit. I cursed my inattention, turned around, and drove us west toward Philly one last time.

The morning’s entertainment: Eastern State Penitentiary. Another as-seen-on-cable-TV attraction like some of our other stops, Eastern State was an experimental jail that traces its roots back to the 1820s, when it was conceived as a very different form of rehabilitation. Its mission statement wasn’t simply about punishment and incarceration; it was about providing an isolated atmosphere to allow chances for personal change through personal reflection and repentance. Hence their coining of the term “penitentiary”.

Eastern Front!

The formidable walls loom across the street from a narrow, tightly populated Philly neighborhood. Probably not one of their trendy upscale areas.

Over the decades all their well-meant plans went astray, inmates failed at reforming, abuses were alleged, mistakes were made, the adjacent neighborhoods freaked out, and the whole place was shut down in 1971 due to a confluence of It Had A Good Run plus Not In My Back Yard.

Historic Places Sign!

Their version of what I typed up there.

Towers Just Inside!

Inside those prison walls. We weren’t allowed to go up in the towers and pretend to be guards.


The erstwhile baseball field on the north end, furnished with picnic tables for, uh, peculiar family outings?

Fast-forward to 1994: Eastern State was reopened as a historical landmark available for tours, gawking, and general moneymaking purposes, including but not limited to occasional filmmaking. Specifically, the madhouse scenes from Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys were filmed there, along with half the run time of the Dead Milkmen’s music video for their greatest hit, “Punk Rock Girl”, which also contains lyrical and visual references to other Philly institutions. Those were all the reasons I needed to ensure we spent at least a few minutes inside before leaving Philly behind.


This diorama showcases the Penitentiary’s unusual design, splitting its various cell blocks and departments into spokes on a wheel.

Iron Gate!

Every foreboding fortress needs an iron gate.

Instead of spending zillions on ceiling repairs, refurbished walls, or brooms and dustpans, the owners maintain Eastern State in a permanent state of “stabilized ruin”, where you can learn about its history amidst a constant state of decay and entropy. Ceilings are collapsed, walls are missing stones, and numerous cells still contain the temporary possessions of their former tenants. Patrons were once required to sign waivers and wear hardhats, but in recent years they’ve attained a transparent level of safety sufficient enough to admit people like us as-is.

Cell Door!

Many cell doors are open for display. Others are closed most likely with good reason.

Exit Doorways!

Many more doorways leading to places of varying levels of discomfort and spookiness.

Patrons have several options for their enjoyment. They offer specialized tours scheduled at specific times, or you can wear a pair of headphones and listen to a self-guided audio tour that narrates the points of interest around you as you walk through the main stretch (no extra charge for the headphones and pseudoPod), or you can wander the grounds without assistance and just peek at the surroundings without benefit of context. We normally eschew audio tours, but it was free, and I was curious about context, so we gave them a shot.

Thus we commenced with the greatest audio tour of all times as the narrator ensnared me with one simple phrase: “Hi, this is actor Steve Buscemi.” From there I was hooked. I even listened to bonus tracks for portions of the grounds that weren’t on the main tour, though I was disappointed that a few of them were recorded by other, inferior humans.

Cell block Tourists!

Our intrepid adventurers following in the footsteps of felons.

Anne + Paint Chips!

Anne listening to the audio tour inside one of the better-looking cells.


Posters supplemented a number of audio tour highlights, including this one on sexuality behind bars. Curiously, there was not a long line leading to this room.

Veterans Plaque!

A tribute to those inmates who fought in World War I on the side of their country of incarceration.

Cell Junk!

One of many rooms evincing the “stabilized ruin” aesthetic.

Cell End Table!

In some cases entire furniture was left behind.

Big Tree!

More than a few former cells had trees growing through the floors. Life will find a way.

Cat + Tree!

Throughout Eastern State are “The Ghost Cats”, three dozen sculptures by artist Linda Brenner as a tribute to a guy named Dan McCloud who frequently fed the stray cat herds that overran Eastern State in the decades after its 1971 closure.

Ghost Cat!

This Ghost Cat is perched on a pillow more comfy than most inmates ever experienced here in the joint.


This shot of random structural damage was nearly consigned to the outtake pile till I spotted the Ghost Cat lurking within.

Al Capone's Cell!

One of the more popular tour stops is also one of its few recreations: a full restoration of Al Capone’s original cell from that time he was a resident from May 1929 to March 1930.

Downtown Philly!

Meanwhile outside, the skyline of the City of Brotherly Love peeks over the walls from another century altogether.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. For another example of prison tourism, see also our 2013 stop at Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, a popular Hollywood filmmaker destination for the making of such works as The Shawshank Redemption.

2. As of this writing I’m three episodes into HBO’s 2016 miniseries The Night Of, and Omar’s lavish prison cell reminds me a lot of Capone’s.

3. After our visit, I understand Eastern State was also the setting for scenes from the second (and second-worst) Transformers film. I don’t recall noticing them and I will never rewatch it to confirm unless someone pays me.]

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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