Behind those walls


I call it the castle. Technically, it’s the Eastern State Penitentiary, a massive prison in operation from 1829 to its close in 1971 (which, if you think about it, is not that long ago), former home of Al Capone, proponent of solitary confinement as a supposed form of rehabilitation, site of torture and murder and suicide. I prefer the castle. It is situated directly across from my apartment in Philadelphia, and while my imaginary vision of it as a medieval home to royalty is usually preserved, what with its turrets and narrow windows and ivy-covered walls, there are times that I’m reminded of its true nature.


I’m brought back to reality in the month of October, for instance, when “Terror Behind the Walls” beckons countless thrill-seekers to the penitentiary, transformed into a haunted attraction complete with menacing gargoyles, billowing smoke, and costumed workers spooking passersby. The soundtrack loop and synchronized screams sometimes keep me up at night. (Not to mention the thought of the ongoing exploitation of countless prisoners’ suffering for the general public’s enjoyment.)


And then there was last weekend, when I was sitting contentedly in my bedroom (with its windows that face the aforementioned structure) and heard the sound of drums. Soon, a parade of a few dozen protesters took the place of cars, holding signs calling for prison reform. “Everyone can be more than their worst act! End death by incarceration!” read a sign on a pickup truck decorated with papier-mâché butterflies. “Let healing and compassion rebuild our community,” read another. Enthused marchers grasped banners and walked slowly as drummers drummed and dancers danced in the midday sun. They came to a halt at the penitentiary’s entrance, calling out for justice and mercy to a silent building, empty save for some leisurely tourists enjoying their visit.


But every non-October month and non-protest weekend, I resume my comfortable stance of blissful ignorance. But it’s gotten me thinking: Is that enough? Is it enough to admire the stately building’s beauty and forget what once happened there? Is it enough to cover my head with a pillow on Halloween, bemoaning the scads of teenagers with a penchant for the macabre? Is it enough to watch the earnest protesters march by my window, some holding signs of their loved ones’ faces, men who currently face the fate of the penitentiary’s former inhabitants?


I’ve rarely been one to get riled up. I fancy myself at best a peacekeeper, at worst a people-pleaser. I’d prefer keeping my head down to engaging in a lively debate. But my heart has begun stirring at the thought of those who once laid their heads opposite where I now lay mine. Of those marchers who face this historical monument only to be reminded of their present suffering. Of my tendency to trivialize that which doesn’t directly affect me.


In all truthfulness, I may continue dubbing it the castle. I may resume admiring its external beauty and disregarding its harrowing contents. But if I do, it’s only to soften the blow of what I do know, of what I have seen on my visit inside. And I will allow myself to be moved with righteous anger at injustices I see. My heart to be stirred with compassion for the suffering of those right under my nose. And while I may not be taking charge at the front of the protesters’ parade, I will choose to withdraw from that bubble of ignorant bliss. Though there is great pain to be felt in doing so, there is always the hope of redemption.


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