The Big House

Trip Start Feb 15, 2010
Trip End Feb 14, 2011

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Where I stayed
Wal-Mart (Philadelphia)

Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Monday, April 5, 2010

This morning I took a little time to look for a new pair of shoes to replace the leaky pair I have, but didn't have any luck.  I also stopped at a photography equipment shop to pick up a replacement lens cap for one of my lenses since one of mine decided to try its hand at swimming.  After having just as little luck with that, I decided I was done shopping for the day and headed into an older part of town to find the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Included in the price of admission was an audio guide that was narrated by Actor/Director Steve Buscemi who had previously visited the penitentiary when scouting locations for a movie.  Most people will probably remember Mr. Buscemi best from his roles as the creepy pedophile in Con Air or the crazy guy in Armageddon.  Having a well-liked celebrity voice on the audio tour did lend something unique to it. 

Eastern State Penitentiary was the first penitentiary ever built, and it operated from 1829-1971. The purpose of its design is in its name.  A penitentiary was designed to instill regret and a desire for penance in the prisoners locked within its walls.  Until that time, prisons usually consisted of one large open room where the prisoners ran amok.  Solitary confinement was rarely used.  The purpose of the penitentiary was to put every single occupant in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentence.  Each prisoner had a small room with a bed and a working table.  The only light came through a small circular skylight in the ceiling called an "eye of God".  There was no door leading from the cell into the prison, only a drawer through which food was passed.  Each cell had an iron grate and a solid wood door that led out to a personal yard with about as much room as a standard parking space.  These outdoor yards had very tall stone walls on all sides and another heavy door that led out into the exterior prison yard that they would never see.  Prisoners were brought to their cells wearing blindfolds to prevent them from getting any idea of the building's layout.  The design of the prison was a massive undertaking due to its purpose and the requirements of properly heating and cooling such a large space.  It was also the first prison built with a radial design like spokes on a wheel.  This allowed guards to stand in the center and look down every cell block corridor.

The original design of the prison didn't last long because of the number of people who felt it was unnecessarily cruel to put every prisoner in solitary confinement.  Through the years the penitentiary was modified and redesigned in an attempt to keep up with its growing population of prisoners and changing mentalities of how to house them.  Additional cell blocks were added and many were renovated to include second levels.  The penitentiary was no stranger to tourism, though.  During all its years of service, it had seen hundreds of visitors from all over the country and even from foreign lands, who wanted to learn about the construction and methods of such a large prison.  Prisons that mimic Eastern State Penitentiary's design still exist all over the world.  The prison was also home to Al Capone for a short period of time, and they have made his cell to look like it would have during his stay.  The mobster was allowed a large number of liberties and amenities during his visit. 

After finishing the audio tour, I went to meet up with a guide who was conducting a short presentation focusing on the escape attempts that were made from the penitentiary.  There were actually quite a few throughout the years, and one man managed to escape twice using the exact same escape route!  One created a ladder that was made of multiple pieces which could be quickly assembled, but were disguised to look like parts of normal cell furniture.  Another dug a 97 foot tunnel that took him over a year to dig.  It was well-designed with support beams and had electric lights throughout its length, and it is still intact today.  Twelve prisoners escaped through his tunnel, but all were eventually recaptured.  

My last stop for the day was to find a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich.  After searching a few internet sites for recommendations, I made my way to one of the locations of Jim's Steaks.  It was a very small and quaint neighborhood sandwich shop with barely enough room for two people to walk past each other, but the basic procedure for all of the sandwich shops is the same.  Hop in the line and make sure you know what you want before you get to the grill.  An order generally consists of two words: what kind of cheese you want and "with" or "without" onions.  There are a couple of other items on the menu, but there probably wouldn't have to be.  I got a "swiss, with", and  I was not disappointed in the least.  Jim's lived up to its popularity.
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