Eastern State Penitentiary Adapts to COVID-19: Night Tours and Online Programming

To wrap up 2020, we are looking back on some of this year’s public humanities happenings in the Greater Philadelphia region. Throughout the week MARCH will feature Public History Year in Review essays written by students in the “Issues in Public History” course at Rutgers-Camden. 

Eastern State Pentitentiary. Photo Courtesy of R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.

By Emily Winters

In the Philadelphia area cultural institutions and historical sites have felt the impact of Covid-19. Forced closures and staff layoffs, transitions to a primarily online presence, and adaptations to the traditional museum experience have been the main reactions to this deadly pandemic. Eastern State Penitentiary historic site reopened in mid-August after being closed since March. This Halloween, however, the site has been forced to close its famous “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted house. A favorite of locals and visitors alike, this special seasonal program has been running since the early 1990s. In its stead, the museum has created new “Night Tours.” In addition, new online programming has strengthened the site’s digital presence so that it may continue its mission of educating about mass incarceration and civil rights while adhering to Covid-19 guidelines.  

Eastern State Penitentiary was an active prison from 1829 to 1971. The site lay dormant for some twenty years before talks of preservation and stabilization began in 1991. Today, Eastern State’s mission is to “interpret the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.” 

The Halloween fundraiser “Terror Behind the Walls” first ran in 1991 in order to fund preservation efforts. Although the haunted house may be closed this year, Eastern State has not closed its doors completely. The new night tours have replaced “Terror Behind the Walls,” and Sean Kelley, director of interpretation, believes that though very different from the haunted house, the night tours are a wonderful, eye-opening experience. Kelley is an original staff member of the site, one of the first paid members when the museum moved from all on-site volunteers in the mid-1990s. He oversees the public aspects of the site and communicates with visitors and the community.

Inspired by night tours at Alcatraz Island in California, Eastern State’s night tours consist of small groups touring through the site in complete darkness. There are no tour guides, but visitors follow an audio narration guide. Asked whether the night tours attract a different audience than “Terror Behind the Walls,” Kelley was not able to give exact data. However, he estimated that the night tours, like “Terror Behind the Walls,” attract younger locals, though fewer than before. Most daytime visitors continue to be out-of-town tourists. 

Eastern State Penitentiary continues to provide an engaging environment for visitors. Though forced to cancel their annual “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted house, the night tours have the potential to provide a new and interesting experience. Seeing the prison in the dark, hearing the voices of the currently incarcerated on the inside of the walls as well as examining the Big Graph that sits in the middle of the yard and informs visitors on the glaring racial disparity in the prison complex, provides a clearer and more evocative image than a haunted house ever could. When asked whether the age of “Terror Behind the Walls” is over, Kelley remarked that currently the site is only trying to plan for the very near future. However, in a recent article for Billy Penn by Max Marin, Kelley is quoted as saying, “‘Terror Behind the Walls is extremely lucrative, but the night tours are closer to our mission.’” That mission is to educate about mass incarceration and civil rights. Kelley stated that the recent demonstrations for racial justice have put this mission into even more glaring focus. In addition to Covid-19, Black Lives Matter demonstrations were a contributing factor to the site’s cancellation of “Terror Behind the Walls.” Kelley stated that the site decided that a haunted house in a prison is not appropriate. 

During the night tours, two films are projected onto the inner walls of the prison. One is a nine-minute documentary shot at the site in 1929 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the prison that provides a glimpse into the everyday lives of incarcerated individuals. It has been shown on smaller screens throughout the prison for years, but Kelley emphasizes that its projection onto the prison wall in the darkness has a special emotional appeal. 

The second projected film is Hidden Lives Illuminated, a 2019 collection of twenty short hand-drawn cartoons created by individuals incarcerated in the State Correctional Facility in Chester, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the project was intensely ambitious, Kelley said. While the site desires to do project partnerships like this in the future, they are limited by funding and Covid-19. 

Covid-19 has inhibited the site’s ability to serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. Kelley explained that the site frequently attempts to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. Due to recent layoffs (the staff of sixty-eight was recently reduced to forty), this is currently impossible. The site also runs an annual toy drive for the children of incarcerated individuals; it is currently under discussions on how to adapt this event in adherence with Covid-19 guidelines. 

In addition to the night tours, Eastern State has adapted to other new formats of education and public history instigated by Covid-19 restrictions. Throughout the summer closure, Eastern State moved online to multiple platforms and continued educating the public. The monthly Searchlight Program – in which experts gather and discuss issues related to contemporary prisons – moved to weekly sessions during the summer, although it later moved back to monthly. Every Friday on its Facebook page, the site runs informational sessions titled “Prisons and the Pandemic.” This program provides current news on the effect of Covid-19 in prisons. Every Wednesday on Twitter, Eastern State hosts a program called “Hidden Histories.” It explores the lives of individuals imprisoned at Eastern State who had been previously overlooked; this includes people with disabilities, practicing Muslims, and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Covid-19 has forced Eastern State to postpone its annual artist installations. Every year, the site has featured two or three new artist installations. The two new artists slated for installation in 2020 were postponed and will instead be premiering in May 2021. Because of this, only one new artist was chosen to premiere alongside them.

Lastly, every Thursday in October at 7 p.m. on its website, Eastern State Penitentiary hosts “Archives Night.” This program is live-streamed during the onsite night tours, although due to Covid-19 restrictions they are not attended by guests in person. During this program, a staff member examines artifacts and relates their stories to contemporary prisons. 

The resurgence of Black Lives Matters protests following the murder of George Floyd has led the staff of Eastern State Penitentiary historic site to question whether a haunted house in a former prison is appropriate and adheres to the site’s mission. Covid-19 has forced Eastern State to adapt to a primarily online presence. Though its popular “Terror Behind the Walls” attraction is closed for the season – and perhaps indefinitely – Eastern State Penitentiary’s new night tours hold the potential to provide a just as engaging, if not more enlightening, experience. 

As of December 2020, all remaining 2020 Night Tours were cancelled due to increased Covid-19 restrictions.

Emily Winters is a South Jersey native and senior undergraduate majoring in history at Rutgers-Camden University.