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Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was designed to look like the most foreboding of fortresses on the outside, and a cathedral-like place of reflection on the inside. Prisoners were kept secluded, their time in open air only allowed in private exercise yards, and if they did leave their cells they wore masks to keep their identities anonymous. Unfortunately, this attempt at reforming a person through intense self-reflection didn’t work, and by the time a prisoner named Lester Smith arrived in the 1950s, there was no more isolation or masks. But he found God all the same through his art.
The murals Smith created in the office of the Catholic Chaplain in 1955 are currently the focus of a conservation project that’s in its last phase. I visited the prison — now a museum, but it still feels like a ruin with the mottled plaster and penitentiary artifacts left to rot — this past Saturday when the rainy weather made fog roll right into the long hallways that radiate out from the structure’s central point.
This radial design was its defining feature when it opened in 1829, so that a single guard could stand in the center of the spoke-shaped architecture and look down each hallway with a turn to be sure that each forced hermit was where he was supposed to be. However, after it had inspired hundreds of other prisons around the world with this “Pennsylvania System” of reform, the place became overcrowded, violent, prone to riots with its dark corners, and eventually obsolete.
The prison closed in 1971, and the trees sprouted through its brick walls and a thriving colony of cats took up residence in the urban forest. The Fairmount area had long ceased to be a rural section of Philadelphia and the neighborhood clustered around this behemoth of decay. Among the looming hallways and rotting cells was the two-room Chaplain Office, where the story of a prisoner’s redemption was still painted on the walls.
Smith had been arrested for a string of armed robberies, and converted to Catholicism after incarceration. According to Francis X. Dolan’s book on Eastern State Penitentiary, he later told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I used to mock ministers and priests, then one day I found I could not go it alone.”
Once in Eastern State, Chaplain Father Edwin Gallagher noticed the self-taught artist’s portraits of saints in his cell, and invited him to work on the walls in his own office. Smith nearly covered the walls with 23 works, some showing individual saints, others purgatory, but most depicting the same drive for the redemption desired by the 19th century founders of the penitentiary — so named for its aspiration to evoke penitence. The most striking mural presents a prisoner, a number on the back of his jumpsuit, with his hands covering his face while his soul rises to Jesus. Each was signed “Paul Martin,” a moniker Smith took up after his favorite saints — St. Paul the Apostle and St. Martin de Porres, two figures very much symbolic of harmony.
Eastern State opened as a museum in 1994, but it wasn’t until 2010 that work started on the murals. In 2011, they became part of public tours for the first time. This focus on the overlooked religious spaces of the massive prison has also included a recent restoration of the synagogue that was the spiritual center for the small Jewish prisoner population. Now with better climate control and a renewed interest in the art as a reflection of prison life, hopefully the murals and these other places of peace will continue to be a part of the history of prison reform, both in its success and failures.
More information on the Lester Smith mural restoration project is on the Eastern State Penitentiary website.