By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - William Harrison knows the Eastern State Penitentiary all too well, having spent years locked up in the imposing fortress that today is a popular tourist attraction in Philadelphia.
Yet the 75-year-old former inmate freely attends reunions held each year by other former inmates, staff and guards, where they gather to share memories and trade stories.
"I just can't get over how I messed up my life," Harrison said on a visit to his old home ahead of this year's reunion, set for May 10.
"When you lose years, you can't get them back. When you are in a place like a prison, you just threw them away," he said.
At Eastern State reunions, held since 1992, inmates get a chance to describe their experiences in question-and-answer sessions with the public.
"Maybe it will help some of them not to get into trouble," said Harrison, a Philadelphia resident who first set foot in Eastern State at age 19.
In all, he served parts of three stints there - in 1959 for stealing a car, in 1962 for forging checks and in 1970 for assault.
The 980-cell Gothic-style prison, where massive gargoyles sit menacingly above its high-walled stone entrance, closed in 1971 after 142 years.
Among its best-known residents were mobster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. Lesser-known were bandits like Joe Buzzard and his four brothers, all locked up at one time or another for horse theft.
Former inmate Jimmy Dolan, 74, who also attends the reunions, recalls that it was not a bad place to do time. There, he said, he met inmates who became his colleagues in crime.
"You met your future partners in the prison system," he said. "Stealing... it was just a part of your life."
The atmosphere at the reunions is collegial, even though the memories of inmates and guards come from opposite sides of the bars, said Sean Kelley, senior vice president at the non-profit Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc.
"There is absolutely no way to tell the officers from the inmates," he said. "They literally slap each other on the back."
These days, plaster crumbles from the vaulted ceilings and paint is peeling off the walls of the prison that drew more than 300,000 visitors last year, according to Kelley. That number has tripled in the last seven years, he said.
Similar reunions are held at California's historic Alcatraz prison each year, said Howard Levitt, spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
"It must be cathartic," Levitt said. "I think time on Alcatraz was significant for anyone who spent time there, whether you were a correctional officer or an inmate."
The 10-acre Eastern State, in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood now filled with trendy restaurants, was opened in 1829.
Unlike many other prisons of its day which were large holding pens and work farms, it employed a Quaker-inspired system that isolated prisoners and encouraged them to reflect upon their crimes, according to the official website.
Cells had thick walls, skylights and private yards. Prisoners were made to wear hoods when they were moved so they would not see anyone else.
The system became a model of penal reform and was widely copied.
French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 and wrote that the solitude leads prisoners "through reflection to remorse."
A decade later, Victorian novelist Charles Dickens described its "rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement" as "cruel and wrong."
By the time Dolan arrived in 1962 for a robbery conviction, the solitary confinement system had been abandoned.
"It wasn't bad at all," he said. "I tell you the truth."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson)