In 1971, the last inmate left his cell and the last officer took his rounds at Eastern State Penitentiary, before the doors closed for good.
On Saturday, former prisoners and staff workers will return for the annual alumni reunion and recount stories of their past, from living conditions to baseball games.
Sometimes, the stories can get pretty heavy.
Last year, a former inmate named John mentioned during the Q&A portion of the event that he watched another inmate commit suicide.
“Hearing him tell that story was amazing,” says Sean Kelley, director of public programming at Eastern State. “After the presentation, I asked him to show me exactly where it happened. It was directly above my desk. It was chilling.”
Two panels of 20 will speak during two presentations, including a former secretary, Carol, one of the only women to ever work at the maximum security prison.
“Carol comes every year and she has amazing stories,” Kelley says. “She talks about the flirtatious inmates and some of the intrigue behind the scenes of staff romances.”
Another inmate, also named John, who goes every year, talks about the unfair treatment he and other prisoners received from guards.
But it’s not all bad memories. One former inmate nicknamed “No-No,” because he pitched back-to-back no-hitters on the prison baseball team, talks about how back then, he, a young black man, beat all the older, white Italian men at bocce ball.
The best part, Kelley says, are the questions from the audience.
“What was it like?” “How does it feel being back?” “Why do you come back?” people ask.
“There’s one inmate who is gone now who used to say he comes back because all his bad memories took place there. But all the good ones did, too. He was there 15 years,” Kelley says.
But one question that usually doesn’t come up is “What were you in for?”
Kelley says even current staffers don’t ask that.
“A couple of the guys who have been here in the past have commuted life sentences,” he says. “Someone died somewhere for you to get that sentence. It was a maximum security prison and these guys don’t claim to be Boy Scouts. They paid their debt to society and now they are coming back to share their stories to the public. Now, they are free members of society.”
One alum’s story
Linwood Johnson, who spent nearly 10 years as a corrections officer at Eastern State, says that nowadays there’s no place like it: “I think it was a country club compared to what they have going on today.”
Officers and inmates were friends and everyone knew everyone else.
“You had a lot of lifers who spent a long time there,” Johnson says. “There were a lot of people who knew what they had to do and did what they had to do. It ran pretty smoothly. It was a good place to work.”
If you go:
Eastern State Penitentiary Alumni Reunion
May 4, 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Included in general admission, $10-$14