3. Holmesburg Prison
When it comes to prisons with a checkered past, Holmesburg Prison is one of the worst. It was built in 1896 and remained in operation until 1995. Many of this prison’s secrets have been lost to history, but from what is known, life was far from ideal for those unfortunate enough to call this wretched place home.
It remains completely closed to the public, with photographers only being granted access with special permission at times. Cindy achieved access during one of these occasions and learned quickly why the facility was off-limits to the average person. After repeatedly bumping her head and risking worse injury than that a time or two, she managed to survive the shoot in one piece, and perhaps more importantly to such a photographer, with her gear intact as well.
Countless riots and attacks that left both inmates and officials dead left red on this prison’s ledger, but that was a cake walk compared to some of the government-approved operations that occurred in this facility. It wouldn’t become public knowledge until more recent years, but residents of Holmesburg Prison were subjected to numerous atrocities, including torture and medical experimentation.
Pharmaceutical and military experiments were conducted on “human guinea pigs” incarcerated in Holmesburg Prison. Dr. Albert Kligman, a dermatologist, allegedly paid volunteer inmates in order to use them as test patients in a number of experiments. Inmates became afflicted with horrific skin conditions resulting from chemical, drug, and cosmetics testing.
Each cell featured a small skylight, providing inmates with a bit of the outside world during the day, and a small slice of the heavens on clear nights. As insignificant as this view was, it was better than most prisoners experienced in their personal living quarters in other prisons. It offered Holmesburg residents a type of tranquility not often bestowed upon members of society such as themselves who were all but forgotten.
In 1938, the 25 leaders of a prison-wide hunger strike were locked in what the prison referred to as “bake ovens” as punishment (not pictured). These cells were heated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit for 58 hours. When the doors were opened, four of the inmates had died due to the extreme heat.
After a massive attempt on behalf of the inmates to overtake the prison guards, over 100 people were severely injured, including one who nearly lost his hand to a meat cleaver. The prison then moved 235 of its most violent inmates to a nearby facility, Eastern State Penitentiary (which you can read more about on the next page). Other incidents included prisoners being beaten to death by guards as well as hundreds of unspeakable acts of violence among inmates, despite strict rules set forth by the officials.
Abandoned since 1995, and in a state of disrepair from long before then, the prison was known for exceedingly unsanitary conditions. Many inmates were allegedly exposed to chemicals that were suspected to cause various skin diseases. It turns out, these suspicions were quite accurate.
Holmesberg Prison’s decrepit interior has become sealed within cinema history, having been used as the set for several prison films including “Up Close and Personal”, “Animal Factory”, and “Law Abiding Citizen”. The set designers of “Up Close and Personal” actually built an expansion onto one of the guard station areas, adding a sinister-looking glass dome which can be seen below.
Closed to the public, this decaying fortress has been deemed too dangerous for tours, with rare exceptions being made only for photographers. It remains unknown whether this prison will be left standing or be lost to history. As recently as this year, Philadelphia is considering selling the prison and the land on which it lies for tear down and new development.
NEXT PAGE: Check out Philadelphia’s abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary