Despite its long history as, well, a prison, Eastern State Penitentiary prides itself on its 200-year tradition of carceral reform. It was the first prison to refer to itself as a “penitentiary,” implying that it encouraged inmates to think about their crimes and feel bad about them while they performed labor to prepare for their re-entry into society. It had heat and running water before the White House did. There was a baseball diamond. The governor of Pennsylvania once donated a dog to increase inmate morale.
Still, it was not a happy place. It was a prison, after all. There were escapes, via tunnel. There were riots. Plenty of prisoners (including Al Capone) were not actually penitent. The building itself grew rather dilapidated and unsafe. Finally, in 1971, the state of Pennsylvania decommissioned it as a correctional facility. In 1991, it became a historical site and museum with tours narrated by Steve Buscemi. In 2017, Eastern State redefined its mission and resolved to become a place where people can think about criminal justice reform, with the help of exhibitions, artwork, and public events. (The Penitentiary’s timeline is a fascinating read.)
And now there is beer! (Isn’t it a truism that beer makes hard conversations easier?) Starting next Friday, May 7, all night tours will conclude with a discussion in the brand-new Fair Chance Beer Garden in the middle of the penitentiary, where the baseball diamond used to be. Beverages will be provided by Triple Bottom, a Philadelphia brewery that, like Eastern State, is a fair chance employer, meaning it makes an effort to hire homeless and formerly incarcerated workers and pays them at least $15 an hour.
“[W]e said, ‘Let’s make a beer garden to make a place where people can reflect on all the different topics that a tour of Eastern State brings up and they can connect with one another and they can connect with our staff,’ and we’ll have one of our educators there and the Triple Bottom staff will be there,” Sean Kelly, Eastern State’s senior vice president, explained to the Asbury Park Press.
It probably won’t provide the same sort of thrill as a haunted history tour (the attraction for which Eastern State is still best known), but it’s certainly a good way to get visitors thinking about prison reform—especially when it’s hard to think about a subject that has no easy answers.