I spent nearly three hours wandering inside the walled compound of the Eastern State Penitentiary, and listening to the awesome audio guide narrated by Steve Buscemi.
Opened in 1829, this intimidating structure would later become the prototype for over 300 prisons around the world. Even in the early years of its operation, Eastern State was controversial. Alexis de Toqueville praised the penitentiary’s potential for prisoner reform whilst Charles Dicken–perhaps its most famous detractor–lamented the mental torture of social isolation. Solitary confinement remains a highly debated topic in the United States today, with the recent case of Kalief Browder highlighting the impact of solitary confinement on inmates’ emotional and mental health, as well as the tragic confluence of problems plaguing the criminal justice system.
The Penitentiary went through cycles of expansion and changes reflecting broader political views on criminal justice, and was ultimately shut down in 1971 after years of falling into disrepair. Despite initial plans to redevelop the penitentiary into a commercial and residential area, organized public opposition swayed the then-mayor Wilson Goode to preserve the structure for educational and cultural purposes. You can read more on the Penitentiary’s fascinating history here.