I had heard about this prison and its tour through the Terror Behind the Walls Halloween website. I had suggested to my friends that we visit TBTW after visiting Skillman since we’d be down that way, and when we got kicked out early, my wife’s girlfriend said we should take the prison tour. I initially resisted, hoping to visit Ancora and a few weird virtuals, but the others won out, and in retrospect I’m glad they did.
The tours are self guided, using the same kind of audio set & headphones you get if you visit Ellis island. You walk around and certain spots are marked by a number, which corresponds to a certain track on the audio. They claim the tour takes 45 minutes but to be honest I could’ve spent twice that long if we hadn’t arrived with only an hour till the prison closed. The tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi who found ESP while checking locations for a movie he was looking to make. At the time he visited the prison was not in any shape to be toured, and he took interest in the prison and the effort to restore and preserve it.
You enter the massive gates of the prison, and then walk thru some narrow tunnels to a cashier who gives you the audio tour headsets. You then enter the prison yard and begin a slow tour of many of the wings and facilities. Among highlights you see the cell where Al Capone stayed, death row, and cell of bank robber Willie Sutton. You see the cells themselves, along the way hearing interviews with guards, prisoners and administrators, describing the way life was in the prison.
When you finally exit the rear of the main building you exit into a exercise yard where inmates played baseball and football. Among the more interesting facts is that when player hit home runs out of the prison often the residents outside would throw the balls back in. Little did the guards know that often these baseballs were plants stuffed with drugs or weapons!
As you walk through the hallways, peer into the cells, and listen to the stories it is impossible to come out of there without being affected by the stories that are told. Even though I took the tour with friends, the tour made me feel as if Steve was talking to me personally and singularly. As I walked the halls my wife and friends seemed to be irrelevant, as I was engrossed by the tales of solitary confinement, the mental illness, the disease, and the fears of both the prisoners and the guards. I felt quite alone myself.
Unfortunately the tour ended early since we arrived so late. We were unable to spend much time in death row, or to linger over an art project about the cruelty of the death penalty being used on children. There are more art projects planned, and the prison often hosts special events. This is without a doubt one of the most visually interesting places you can visit, and one of the oldest buildings you will likely ever get a chance to tour. it is well worth the trip, just make sure to give yourself at least 2 hours to fully appreciate the facilities. Afterwards there is a small museum area with items from the prison including the lock and key for the original front gate which still works 180 years later!
The prison is located at Fairmount Ave & 22nd Ave in Philadelphia and is open from April 1 until just after Thanksgiving. Private tours can be scheduled at any time, even during the winter. For information call 215 236-5111 x12. One of the more fascinating things I read was that the prison was a popular tourist attraction, even when it was open. Supposedly was as popular as Niagara Falls or the Capitol Building. Between 1862 and 1872 over 100,000 people visited the prison.
Read about the history of the prison here
Read my take on Terror Behind the Walls here (a Halloween attraction held in the confines of ESP)