“Lesson 4,” a voice blasted from the MP3 player of the man sitting across from me. It was the only noise on an otherwise quiet bus, the bumble of which had put my sister to sleep. We had begun our journey in Chinatown, and now, as I stared out the window, hypnotized by the blur of branches that line the road from New York to Philadelphia, it occurred to me: the dark humor in taking a bus to prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary, or ESP, was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, before it was shut down in 1971. It lay abandoned for a decade, home only to invading vegetation and stray cats. In 1994, The City of Philadelphia reopened its doors to the public.
We were a half hour away from walking through those doors. And then the bus broke down.
“At least we got access to food and shelter,” the bus driver cooed in her Jamaican accent, much to the horror of the man with the MP3 player who had only reached level 5 of his language tapes. A separated wheel had left us sandwiched between a Popeye’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.
I was ready to escape with Uber – I did not come all the way to Philly for donuts and fried chicken – but my panic was short-lived. Ten minutes later, another bus showed up and we were soon on our way again.
After a quick taxi ride from the bus center to Fairmount Avenue, we arrived at the prison. Its sheer size took me by surprise; it looks like a castle, complete with high stone walls and turrets.
But on the other side of the wall, when I looked up at one of the guard towers on the corner, a shiver went down my spine. I realized I had never actually been in a real prison before. The fact that it was now a museum didn’t make it feel any less real.
I put on the audio headset, took a deep breath, and stepped inside the first cellblock.
In contrast to its menacing exterior, the inside of ESP is surprisingly open and airy for a prison. The cellblocks that radiate out from the central rotunda have long, barreled hallways, high ceilings and skylights, and tall, arched windows. When they were built in the 1820s, the hub-and-spoke design was revolutionary.