Fairmount: An Unlikely Reunion of Guards and Inmates

Eastern State Penitentiary alumni gather for a group picture

“I had a thing for stealing cars,” Wesley Boyd declared. The crowd, mostly tourists with disposable cameras, laughed.

His favorite?

“1964 Mustang.”

Boyd, along with several others seated beside him on the platform, was once a resident– of the involuntary sort– at Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue.

While most people would be reluctant to discuss their past indiscretions and subsequent punishments in front of a crowd of complete strangers, former inmates such as Boyd and William Borden, who served time for robbery in 1967, are not most people.

Since the 1990s, former inmates like themselves, along with former guards, officers and administrative staff, have reunited to discuss experiences they had inside the 30-foot-high stone walls at Eastern, the famous prison that opened in the early 19th century and closed four decades ago. Hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill accompany question-and-answer sessions at these unconventional reunions.

A lifelong resident of North Philadelphia, Boyd has the dubious honor of being the youngest prisoner on record at Eastern, incarcerated at the age of 17 in 1960. His affinity for muscle cars and trouble kept him in the judicial system for 28 years. With 37 arrests and 13 convictions under his belt, Boyd has been clean for the past decade.

“It was strange coming through the gate and not hearing it close behind me,” he said of the building’s notorious iron gates, designed to intimidate incoming prisoners with their grating clamor.

Eastern State Penitentiary alumni gather for a group picture

Other panel members, such as Carol Tanner, shared stories from a different perspective.  Tanner, employed in the business office for 20-years, told of a female coworker who befriended an inmate.  She would often slip him cigarettes.  Later, after the inmate was paroled, the two married.

“They won’t let me go up to see my office because the steps are deteriorating,” Tanner said.

After it ceased operations as a state prison in 1970, Eastern was utilized by the Philadelphia Streets Department as a storage facility until the mid-1980s. Limited tours of the facility began in 1988.

“It’s a really unique experience,” said Erica Harman, administration and collections assistant at Eastern, of the alumni event. “Most of the inmates we invite [to participate] we know because they’ve come back [to visit].”

A view inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cellblock

Boyd, a fan of Law & Order and former paralegal who earned two associate degrees while incarcerated, did not think he would have the opportunity to visit.

“I was here doing six to 30. I didn’t think about going home,” he said.

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