One of the area’s most popular attractions is preparing for a re-re-opening in mid-March. Starting Friday March 12, the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) will open to the public for tours Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. As part of the opening, the 142-year-old institution will make available for the first time in a full year Cellblock 11, which hosts several artist installations, the restored Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, and The William Portner Memorial Exhibit on Jewish Life.
Eastern State Penitentiary initially closed on March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then opened in August and closed again in November. This time, ESP is hopeful of staying open for good.
“Without a doubt, the last year has been challenging. When we began 2020, like a lot of institutions, we had big plans and high hopes for a very successful season. We had seen our visitation continue to increase and we were rolling out lots of new programming,” said Brett Bertolino, Eastern State Penitentiary’s vice president of operations. “It was not in our plans for most of 2020. We lost our entire summer season. We lost our entire group sales season for last year, all of our event rentals were lost as well as our Halloween fundraiser.”
“We spent a lot of time last year changing our operation to comply with the current guidance for COVID, which as you know, changed over the course of the year and to try to anticipate where we were going when not much was known about the future.”
The future is now for ESP, which enjoyed strong business and visitor feedback during the late summer and fall months when it was open. Eastern State is providing a safe, fun environment, and to that end is mandating that all visitors wear masks/face coverings and take advantage of the hand sanitizer stations throughout the building. All visitors must sanitize their hands upon entering the building and must stay six feet apart throughout the experience.
Bertolino said that the infrastructure improvements have also included taking advantage of the 11-acre space and maximizing ample outdoor space.
“The first part of your experience will be an audio tour narrated by Steve Buschemi and that is a linear experience,” Bertolino said. “Everyone will stay six feet apart and we’re also kind of directing their path so there is no opportunity for any visitor to get too close to each other. The change we are making is that when you are done your main audio experience, you can explore the 11-acre building on your own. We’re trying some new paths and new ideas, so the courtyard behind death row was opened in the fall for the first time for a daytime tour and we heard lots of positive feedback about that.
“We’re also opening a very small courtyard between Cellblocks 3 and 11 that visitors have never been in before and we’re using that as a passageway for visitors to get from one part of the prison to another to keep people physically distanced. It’s a cool, little hidden gem where you get a nice view of the center guard tower. We think it’s a great visitor experience and we felt that if we didn’t offer a great experience, it wasn’t worth opening.”
In addition to opening to the public for tours, Eastern State Penitentiary has a virtual monthly event – the first Tuesday of every month -- called The Searchlight Series and March’s offering is Living In Prison During COVID-19, which airs on March 2 from 6-7 p.m. on both Facebook and Zoom. Prisons and jails are experiencing infection rates up to five times that of the general public. During this pandemic. What is life like for people living in these crowded and increasingly infected institutions? Two members of the Pennsylvania Institute Law Project team present a new animated film, featuring the literal voices of incarcerated Pennsylvanians reflecting on this critical moment. Click here for more information.
And for any of you living in the 19130 zip code, a day at the Penitentiary is something you will want to plan. Every second Sunday of each month, starting March 14, those who show proof that they live in the 19130 zip code are admitted free of charge.
“We are really excited to welcome back our neighbors to see the building,” Bertolino said. “It’s a great chance for our neighbors to re-introduce themselves to the building and to see some of the new features that we are offering.”
For the general public, tickets are sold online at easternstate.org.