PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An old penitentiary-turned-historic-site that becomes a haunted house attraction each Halloween and provides a look back on a bygone era of corrections is taking a new direction with a hard look at today's prisons and America's high rate of incarceration.
Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 with the belief that criminals could redeem themselves, and it was cruel to crowd or mistreat them. The only light came from the skylight in the vaulted ceiling, sending the message that only the light of God and hard work could lead to reform.
By the 1930s, space meant to house 300 inmates instead held 2,000. By 1970, the year Eastern State closed, punishment was its primary mission.
Now, in a transformation that began modestly a few years ago, the penitentiary that housed such notorious criminals as gangster Al Capone and bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton is completing a retooling of its programming to place a major focus on growing questions about the effectiveness of America's prison system.
"Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration," an exhibit opening next month in workshops alongside one of the cellblocks, lets visitors know that the U.S. has the world's highest known percentage of incarcerated citizens. It also highlights large racial disparities in prison populations and the toll mass incarceration has taken on minority communities.
"Five years ago, I would have told you visitors didn't want to hear about this, that it would make them uncomfortable. They'd take this as being political, they'd be offended or they'd think we were trying to drive a political agenda," said Sean Kelley, exhibit curator for the nonprofit that has run the museum since 2001. "At every turn, we've been proven wrong."
He said visitors to the penitentiary have shown interest in these issues and wanted to talk about them.
"The growth of the U.S. prison population is so jaw-dropping that it's of deep interest to many people," Kelley said.
The prison population has grown by nearly 600 percent since 1970, with an estimated 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail.
The exhibit includes a criminal justice policy video wall, featuring clips of presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bill Clinton; videotaped interviews of people discussing the effects of incarceration, from the state corrections chief to a girl who has lived in five foster homes since her father was imprisoned; and a display examining the phenomenon described as the "million-dollar block," referring to the amount spent on imprisoning residents of some blocks in America. Interactive displays engage visitors on questions of criminal justice policy.
Eastern State plans to continue its annual Halloween attraction, "Terror Behind the Walls," a major moneymaker and way to attract a younger, more racially diverse audience. It will also keep holding its Bastille Day celebration, when the pen stands in for the famous fortress prison in Paris and an actress playing Queen Marie Antoinette tosses thousands of Philadelphia-made Tastykakes to the crowds below in a nod to the remark attributed to the monarch, "Let them eat cake."
"If we ask hard questions, it's important that people know we have some sense of humor as well," Kelley said.
Eastern State has hosted exhibits with political themes in the past but in conjunction with outside artists. "Our own voices, the organization itself, was pretty much silent," Kelley said.
The new exhibit — which will be up for three years and then most likely updated to reflect the times — is the biggest step yet toward fulfilling a fresh vision for the prison established when a consultant hired in 2009 helped create a new interpretive plan. The final directive? Talk to visitors about incarceration in modern times.
The first changes were modifying the audio tour and adding more signage on the American prison system today. Then, in 2014, the museum installed a 3,500-pound steel bar graph on the grounds to show how the prison population has exploded since 1970 while the violent crime rate stands about the same today.
Morgan Williams, 18, of Maywood, New Jersey, on a penitentiary visit Tuesday, said she knows that some people attribute the decline in crime around the country to mass incarceration. At the same time, she found the bar graph "not a good kind of impressive for me."
Kelley said the new programming has "completely changed what this organization is and what it wants to be. It got us thinking about who gives tours and who designs programs."
A former inmate who works to help people leaving prison now serves on Eastern State's board. Four newly hired tour guides have served prison time and sometimes share their experiences with visitors.
Ann Schwarzman, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for a humane corrections system, said the new exhibit reflects a growing consensus there are inequities in the system.
"It's unusual to have both political parties agree that we can't sustain this system and it's not working," she said.