Steve Buscemi leads jailhouse talk

If the thought of graduating or simply finding a job for the summer isn’t scary enough, a trip to 22nd and Fairmount might just do the trick. For those who crave Halloween style fear year

If the thought of graduating or simply finding a job for the summer isn’t scary enough, a trip to 22nd and Fairmount might just do the trick.

For those who crave Halloween style fear year round, Eastern State Penitentiary is launching a brand new tour that will make such a nightmare come true.

In order to celebrate the tenth tour season, the prison staff is introducing “Voices of Eastern State,” an audio tour narrated by the appropriately creepy Steve Buscemi.

(That’s right, the one of Fargo fame.)

According to Sean Kelley, the prison’s program coordinator, Buscemi’s relationship with Eastern State began in 1999 when he was in the area scouting filming locations.

One of the reasons Buscemi was chosen to narrate was because of this “personal connection.”

From the beginning we said ‘No celebrity narrators unless it’s Steve Buscemi,'” said Kelley.

“A friend of mine put it best when he said that Steve was a great choice because you can see him playing a guard or an inmate.”

In addition to Buscemi’s voice, the audio tour – which began production “in earnest” one year ago – incorporates the voices of former wardens, officers and inmates of Eastern State.

In light of the new audio tour, it is interesting to note that the penitentiary was once a fortress that operated around a strict code of silence.

Opened in 1829, Eastern State was essentially a Quaker-inspired experiment that tested the morale of criminals by enforcing policies of isolation and silence.

The thought was that such punishment gained by isolation was the most appropriate route to reformation.

Eastern State gained rapid worldwide attention for both its astounding architecture and its revolutionary reformation system.

However, for as many who applauded the efforts of the prison, another great number opposed the system, deeming solitary confinement as cruel and severely detrimental to the human spirit.

Among those who detested the prison system was British author Charles Dickens.

After a visit to Eastern State in 1842, Dickens wrote: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body…”

Those who sided with this viewpoint made such an impact that the system was abandoned in the early 20th century.

Over the following decades, this famed Philadelphia prison was home to such notorious criminals as mobster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton, who attempted to escape from the compound with 11 other inmates in 1945.

Shortly after being named a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the prison
closed its doors due to mounting repair and mechanical upgrading costs.

In 1977, the state sold Eastern State to the City of Philadelphia.

In 1994, Eastern State Penitentiary opened its once secured doors to the public, inviting them in for tours of the prison.

Over the past decade, the museum has become home to numerous exhibits, and was even featured in the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys.

Current tours include the central observation point, Al Capone’s cell and death row, along with the aforementioned exhibits.

“Voices of Eastern State,” recorded in the museum using 360-degree audio technology, will allow visitors to hear slamming cell doors, shouting guards and radios and TVs playing from individual cellblocks.

In addition, museum-goers will be privy to the sounds of the 1961 prison riot.

In a prison famed for its once silent cells, it seems odd that an audio tour has been added to Eastern State’s existing exhibits.

“This prison is known for it’s silence, but in actuality, it was never silent.

Human beings are, by nature, noisy. Prisoners had to fight their instincts to talk to one another,” Kelley said.

“The sounds of the 20th century can bring voices of people who are still alive directly to our visitors,” Kelley said.

“It’s wonderful to stand out of the way and let those who were there tell the stories.”

Eastern State Penitentiary is located at 2124 Fairmont Ave. and is open Wednesday to Sunday in the months of April through November.

For additional information on admission and hours, visit

Alix Gerz can be reached at

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