Eastern State Penitentiary Hires Formerly Incarcerated People as Tour Guides

Marabou excitedly shares this video from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC). The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an ICSC member, opened in 1829 and was the world’s first penitentiary. It served as a model for prisons worldwide. Eastern State closed in 1971 and is now an historic site that teaches and critiques present-day mass incarceration, drawing attention to the inequalities and structural biases within the system. In 2016 ICSC gave Eastern State a grant to hire formerly incarcerated people as tour guides. This action is not only an incredible way to deepen the historic site’s narrative by including the perspective of those who have lived through the United States prison system, but also provides jobs from people who cannot easily find employment. The inability of formerly incarcerated people to find a job is one of the factors that contribute to a cycle of being released from prison and finding oneself back there due to lack of jobs or, more commonly, employers unwilling to “take a chance” on someone who has been in prison. This initiative made possible through ISCS funding is a perfect example of how it is possible to not only reimagine museums and historic and cultural sites, but also put these reimagining into action. This program gives agency to those formerly incarcerated to share their stories and be heard everyday by visitors at Eastern State. Hearing stories directly from a real person who experienced the US prison system as well as being able to ask questions and get authentic responses builds empathetic bonds between visitor and tour guide, visitor and history.

From the Penn Museum hiring Syrian and Iraqi refugees to speak about Syrian and Iraqi art and history to Eastern State Penitentiary hiring formerly incarcerated people as tour guides, how can we make this practice commonplace?

How can museums and cultural/historic sites change their hiring practices, rework their budgets, and adjust their curatorial perspectives to provide space, time, and compensation for people who represent the objects, experiences, and/or spaces on display to be heard and share their stories in ways that will directly impact visitor experience?

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