The Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) has been a national historic landmark since 1965, but in recent years, the institution has been making a concerted effort to include issues in contemporary prisons as a part of their tours and guided programming. Their updated mission reflects this, stating, “Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.”
“ESP has always been built on educating; now we’re just doing it in different outreach ways,” says Eastern State education specialist Samantha Hunter. In addition to outreach, ESP has instituted numerous exhibits that discuss the current state of mass incarceration. In 2012, the historic site began displaying signs with current statistics. In 2014, the museum created “The Big Graph,” a 16-foot metal structure with three sides detailing information about mass incarceration rates. The purpose of this installation is to illustrate the staggering differences between the American prison system and other countries. In 2016, ESP opened its “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibit. According to Hunter, “the display puts a more human face on having roughly 2.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. today.”
While ESP has long desired to focus on current criminal justice issues, the noteority and funding have only recently been available to explore these topics. ESP will soon be debuting a new project entitled “Hidden Lives,” in which two teaching artists will instruct inmates on how to make 30-second movies. The videos will then be displayed on ESP’s outer wall. The museum haalso continued its returning citizen tour guide project for the past three years. This program makes it possible for those with a criminal record to work at ESP. Hunter hopes that this encourages visitors to empathize with people who have been incarcerated.
Thus far, the reactions to these recently added programs have been overwhelmingly positive. When ESP first began talking about contemporary issues, “people were a little nervous” said Hunter, “but our attendance keeps growing and growing, so it seems to be that talking about the evolution of the criminal justice system is the right way forward for our historic site.”
Eastern State is striving to be part of the national conversation on the efficacy of the prison system, and whether its reform is necessary.
“Mass incarceration is real, and it’s not working,” Hunter said. The institution feels responsible for “interpret[ing] the legacy of American criminal justice reform,” because the issues the system currently struggle with are akin to the struggles when the penitentiary opened in 1829. The age-old questions of what to do with a person who commits a crime, and what to do when they reenter society, are still questions being debated today. Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledge that our current criminal justice system isn’t working. Hunter wants people to know that it doesn’t have to be that way. “We must think hard about how we heal from the damage that’s been done, and how we move forward.”