Gary Freeman knows his historic prison inside out
By David Roza
He stands before the crowd at the prison’s gated entrance, beneath high stone walls and grey cloudy skies. His feet are spaced shoulder-width apart in black New Balance sneakers. An Honest Tea bottle sticks out from one of the pouches on his army green cargo pants. Keys jangle from his belt as he stuffs his hands in the pockets of his grey snow parka and he clears his throat before speaking out through the still, crisp November air from beneath a black watch cap. “All right folks, let’s get started.”
His name is Gary Freeman, and he is a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary. Before him stands a gaggle of 20 tourists here to explore the centuries-old prison, whose high walls and towers dominate the domestic landscape of Fairmount, Philadelphia. The tourists come from all over the country. Some are clad in Oakland Raiders caps, others in red designer jeans and Michael Kors purses. Two are teenagers, one is a baby held in her mother’s arms. All are here to visit prison, but not to stay, and Freeman is here to show them the way around for the 2:00 p.m. tour.
“My name is Gary, I’ve worked here forever,” He says to the crowd. “This is a public tour, and if for any reason you want to wander off on your own, I can understand that. Just give me a little wave.”
Stopping beneath a guard tower in one corner of the walls, the 49-year-old Freeman introduces himself and the building he serves. “I first started working here about seven years ago. When I started I had no idea there was a difference between jails and penitentiaries. Does anyone know the difference?” The crowd is silent. “Jails in the 18th century were really just holding pens for criminals, and there wasn’t any effort to try to make them into better people. Most jails nowadays are penitentiaries. You can get an education behind bars, job skills, they really they try to help people. EasternState was the first penitentiary in the world. Built in 1829, it was in
service for 142 years, during which over 80,000 inmates passed through these walls. It’s the ultimate, ‘if these walls could talk’ kind of scenario.”
Speaking of talking, it appears that the inmates today are a little less obedient than their predecessors under the eyes of this humble prison guard.
“EasternState was founded on a policy of solitary confinement,” Freeman continues. “There really was only one rule; you weren’t allowed to make noise.” The baby in the group makes a squeaking noise.
“No talking,” he says. The baby coos.
“No whistling.” The baby giggles.
“No singing.” The baby squeals. Freeman smiles.
Freeman first visited EasternState as a teacher with his high school art students from New Jersey. “I wasn’t happy as a schoolteacher, I felt confined in a classroom and this was a different kind of classroom.” It’s surprising that a person who felt confined in his previous job would choose to work at a prison, but Freeman says the building itself motivated him to become a tour guide. “I didn’t know about modern corrections or any of that stuff, I was inspired by the building. Just the sheer size and the creepy beauty and grand scale and the amount of work and effort that went into building this place and the amount of taxpayer money they spent building it…I’m really intrigued by ‘the healing powers of God,’ you know, concepts that nowadays people might scoff at, but back then that was the cutting-edge thinking. Trying to help people.”
Freeman points with a big, meaty hand towards the battlements on the building’s front towers. “In a real castle, archers would hide behind them for protection, but at Eastern, everything’s fake,” says Freeman. “If you stood on those battlements, they would come up to about your ankles. Not good for protection. It’s just for show, to scare people.” The crowd chuckles.
As the tour moves into the first cellblock, one visitor named Miguel asks, “How many people died here?”
“I get that question all day every day,” Freeman says. “The answer is roughly 1,200 inmates died. Over 50% were because of tuberculosis, contagious diseases swept quickly.” Sickness may have run rampant through the penitentiary then, but sound seems to be the main contaminant of the museum now. A group of loud teenagers in hoodies and sweatpants come barreling down the cellblock. Freeman turns immediately towards them and says, respectfully but firmly, “Guys you have to go back that way, there’s a tour going on here.” The teenagers turn back like a retreating gang of small-time crooks, their noise fading down the corridor with them as Freeman goes right back to his lecture, showing visitors through prisoner cells and the passing years of history.
Eventually, the tour is led into the building’s central rotunda, with cellblocks leading out from the center in every direction like the spokes on a wheel. Crowds of visitors pass through the rotunda, checking their cell phones, listening to audio guides, wearing passes on their sweaters from the Rodin museum and the Franklin Institute. Teenagers giggle, couples whisper, parents hold their children’s hands. Freeman stands over a scale model of the original prison enclosed in a glass case. He points at individual cellblocks like a general pointing down at a map.
“To cope with an overcrowding population, Eastern had to do away with the individual exercise yards so they could have exercise groups in a big yard, but everyone had to wear a bag over their heads. Imagine a hot day in July, you’ve all got bags on your head, no eyeholes, everyone’s bumping into each other. It was ridiculous! It wasn’t working, and in 1913 they abandoned the solitary confinement model.”
When Freeman first arrived to EasternState, it wasn’t the guiding that worried him; it was the wealth of facts he had to learn. “I find a lot of tour guides have public speaking backgrounds. I had a lot of that through teaching and I did stand-up comedy for a number of years,” he said. “For me the bigger obstacle was just learning the information, because there’s a lot of it. Once I got the information, it was a process of trial and error, like ‘what’s the best place to talk about this, about that?’ Then as time goes on it just naturally falls into place.”
The distant roar of a jet airliner can be heard from somewhere in the clouds above as Freeman leads the tour into a courtyard and points to a 1930s picture of a thin inmate with slicked-back hair and a cardigan. “This man is Clarence Klinedinst. Has anyone seen The Shawshank Redemption? Very similar situation; during the day Clarence worked on the walls as a stonemason, but at night he was digging a tunnel out of his cell using his masonry tools. Took him a year-and-a-half to dig straight down 15 feet, then 97 feet across and 15 feet up on the other side of the walls. On April 3rd 1945, Clarence and 11 other inmates escaped through that tunnel during breakfast. But that was his and his buddies’ downfall. They left at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, and in 1945 it was rush hour and twelve guys in stripes just popped out of the side of Fairmount Avenue.” The crowd laughs. “Most of them were caught right away, and sentenced to an additional six years. Clarence was only six months away from being released, and he was transferred to a higher security prison but he escaped from that too.”
As the tour continues, the clouds begin to clear and a brief dazzle of afternoon sun illuminates the gloomy penitentiary and warms its chilly air. Freeman continues to inform and entertain his guests with a story-telling voice that booms. His grey-green eyes sparkle every time the visitors laugh or gasp at the tickling thrill of a tale well told.
“I do about one tour a day, about five a week, for about six years,” Freeman said afterwards. “If you do the math that’s a lot of tours. I’ve given thousands. You have to mold your tour to the group, and that’s half the fun, too. It makes you feel good you’re the person who can educate them and that’s why people go into teaching in the first place.”
Standing on the infield of the building’s baseball diamond, Freeman talks about the penitentiary record for annual home runs (4,300 home runs in 1934), and of stray footballs being tossed back over the wall stuffed with dynamite to help inmates escape. In the dilapidated, multi-story Cellblock 12, the veteran tour guide discloses, “It’s hard to say if this place is haunted. If ghosts exist they would be here. There are a lot of people on staff who won’t come here after dark. I have not seen anything, and I don’t mind working here at night.” He smiles. “For me, that’s easy overtime.”
As the tour concludes, Freeman invites visitors to stay and ask questions or give feedback on the tour. After some brief chatter, the visitors slowly scatter and Freeman turns back to the tower where the tour began. Unlike his visiting inmates, it seems this prison guard is here to stay for quite some time. “The moment I get bored with it I won’t work here anymore,” he says. “Am I going to be here forever? Probably not, but as of right now I’m happy where I am.”