March 12, 2019, Shannon Eblen - The New York Times
Built as a punishing fortress in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary sat a mile and a half outside Philadelphia, isolated behind 30-foot walls, a model of solitary confinement imitated around the world.
The prison remained in use for the next 142 years, even as Philadelphia grew around it. It closed in 1971; then the site was rescued in the 1980s and stabilized, preserved in a permanent state of decay. Today, the brick and stone of the vaulted ceilings are crumbling. Layers of paint are flaking off the walls, and floors are heaped with dirt and dust. Inside the cells, beds and tables are toppled, drawers ajar, frozen in time.
The building once attracted more visitors than Independence Hall, even as its practices drew critics including Charles Dickens, who called the prison a place of “torture and agony.”
“People feel a power being in a real place that has historic significance,” said Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums.
Although it no longer outranks Independence Hall, hundreds of thousands of visitors come each year to explore its grounds, accompanied by an audio tour narrated by the actor Steve Buscemi.
But recently talking about the site’s history didn’t seem like enough for Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation. Two years ago, after discussions about how the museum addressed the rising number of people incarcerated in the United States — especially people of color — Mr. Kelley helped rewrite the museum’s mission statement, declaring that Eastern State would no longer be neutral in recognizing mass incarceration as a crisis.
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