Sean Kelley, Senior Vice-President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and Project Lead of Hidden Live Illuminated, discussed the new, limited run art installation.
Hidden Lives Illuminated features nightly free screenings of newly-commissioned, animated short films created by currently-incarcerated artists living in Pennsylvania correctional institutions. Displayed nightly on the outside walls the films tell the experiences and feelings of the men and women living behind them. The series was commissioned as part of Eastern State Penitentiary’s mission of promoting conversation about criminal justice reform in the US. ESP has a permanent exhibition on US incarceration, among the highest in the world and disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color. An award winning, ongoing interactive exhibit asks visitors to question their thoughts on reform and rehabilitation.
Sean discussed the failed mission of the original Quaker jailers, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Sean described how each prisoner was kept alone in silence, with his own small yard and only a slot I the wall for meals to be delivered. Its then innovative design, a wheel spoke layout to allow guards to see down the cell blocks was studied and emulated by European countries, New York’s Sing Sing was used as a model by South America, Asia and the rest of the world. He described how the system continued, despite critics including Charles Dickens who requested a visit. The prison was converted to an open, general population prison by the turn of the 20th century, ending its existence as a jail by the early 1970s. At the end, its outdated facilities and lack of security – it was now surrounded by the city – made a place to warehouse elderly prisoners living out their sentences.
He described how it was saved from the wrecking ball and slowly reopened to the public. It relies on donations and memberships, as well as special events including the Terror Behind the Walls Halloween haunt, to continue their work in stabilizing and restoring the buildings. The prison is open daily for tours and self-guided exploration. There is a recreation of Al Capone’s cell, commissioned art installations, the restored synagogue and chapel, hospital and guards rooms to see.