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The uncertain future of one of Pennsylvania’s most notorious prisons, SCI-Pittsburgh

A prison with a water tower nearby.
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The original outside wall of State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh, which opened in 1882 as Western State Penitentiary, stands more than 60 feet tall.

Even bathed in sunlight, the sandstone walls of State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh look foreboding. They climb 60 feet into the air from the banks of the Ohio River, punctuated every few feet by towering stone archways. But the openings are so choked with metal bars it’s hard to believe any light gets through.

The darkness inside is one of the first things Pittsburgh photographer Mark Perrott mentions when he remembers walking through the prison in 2005 when the state briefly mothballed the facility.

“Light was precious. Spaces smelled like they had been left alone,” he said.

Perrott spent months photographing every inch of E Block, a sort of holding tank for first-timers and people who violated parole. Every inch of the walls was covered with graffiti and messages like, “I started this sentence on November 28, 2002, and it will end when I am put to sleep by the commonwealth.”

A security guard came up to where he was working one day and said, “You know they paint over this [stuff] every three years,” Perrott recalled. Which meant that underneath what he could see were decades of voices, trapped under paint.

“I was just so soul-shaken” by the thought, he said.

Now the walls themselves are likely to disappear.

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'Something that will never get built again'

Inmate populations in the U.S. have dropped in recent years, which means prison closures have increased. In other cities and towns, those complexes have sometimes been converted to things like distilleries, museums, and boutique hotels. Rob Pfaffman, an architect and preservationist, says he thinks something similar could happen in Pittsburgh.

“The community should be able to reclaim the structure, transform it and reuse it,” he said. “Instead of destroying lives as a prison, it's creating opportunity and lives by creating new jobs within the historic structure.”

The first wing of SCI-Pittsburgh, then called Western State Penitentiary, opened in its current location in 1882. The main Romanesque building was designed by Allegheny County-born architect Edward M. Butz. The imposing walls and building were topped with steep roofs and turrets. The National Register of Historic Places added SCI-Pittsburgh to its list in 2022, though the federal designation provides little protection against modifications or demolition.

“It’s something that will never get built again,” Pfaffman said. He believes the prison could find new purpose as a public space and workforce training center — and could prompt people to think critically about incarceration.

“It's much more compelling if you have a physical object that you can inhabit, that you can visit and understand,” he said. “Just as when you go to the sites of Nazi structures in Germany or the communist structures in Russia.” 

That was the thinking behind preserving the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia. On its website, the nonprofit owner says tours are offered at the popular attraction in an effort to "deepen the national conversation about criminal justice."

But just up the hill from SCI-Pittsburgh, Angel Gober is unmoved by concerns about historic preservation.

“That feels like a traumatized, harmful space that has incarcerated Black people for a very, very long time,” said Gober, the president of the Marshall-Shadeland Civic Group.

The U.S. imprisons people at a higher rate than nearly anywhere else, and a disproportionate number of those inmates are Black. SCI-Pittsburgh itself housed hundreds of thousands of people over its history.

“We don't want to keep something that has had a major negative impact on Black people and in our neighborhood,” Gober said.

The civic group’s vice president, Jamie Younger, said the organization hopes Governor Josh Shapiro will deliver on a promise by Governor Tom Wolf to “totally demolish the site and make it … ready to market to potential developers.”

Mayoral chief of staff Jake Wheatley, a former state representative whose district included Marshall-Shadeland, said he opposed the closure of SCI-Pittsburgh in 2017 because of the impact on jobs: At the time, the facility was said to employ 550 people. But now, Wheatley said his focus is to ensure the neighborhood benefits from redevelopment.

“We should continue the commitment by the state that the community voices are the most important voices … and uplift those people who are most impacted by whatever happens on the site,” he said.

Redevelopment and its benefits seemed just over the horizon at the time of SCI-Pittsburgh’s closure. But in the six years since then, there have been a number of false starts. Work has been slowed by challenges that include flooding concerns, the presence of asbestos in the facility, and a lack of funding to prepare the site.

But the site has drawn interest nonetheless.

A sign for a prison.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

'Not always the pretty stuff'

Standing on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which runs parallel to the prison’s walls, Dawn Keezer stared up, shaking her head slightly in a kind of disbelief.

“It looks amazing,” she said. “It has that imposing look.”

Keezer runs the Pittsburgh Film Office, which works to attract TV and movie productions to the region. That charge gives her a different perspective on things like the value of a hulking prison set just eight feet above a floodplain.

“What I sell is southwestern Pennsylvania and everything in it,” she said. “And it's not always the pretty stuff because that's not what people film.”

Six major projects have shot at the prison — including the television series Mindhunter and Mayor of Kingstown — and each generated money for the region. In 2021, the 11 projects that filmed in the area stimulated $330 million of economic development. The productions that have worked specifically at the prison have also invested some $500,000 in the structure to make it safe for cast and crew.

Last summer, the state hired Michael Baker International to conduct a feasibility study for the use of SCI-Pittsburgh. At one point, Michael Baker recommended saving part of the structure so Hollywood would keep calling. The study later noted that removing the historic structure “would directly and negatively impact the City’s marketability to the film industry and cause a direct loss of economic revenue and associated workforce training programs.”

Community input nixed the idea of preservation, and Keezer stressed that she supports the neighbors’ desire for something different. In the meantime, though, she’ll use the prison as long as she can.

While photographer Mark Perrott understands the urge to keep something of the historic building, he’s skeptical of halfway measures.

“Either let it be and let it rot or knock it down,” he said. “But don't make it suffer.”

State officials, too, back a total demolition. In an email, Madeline Williams, special assistant to the secretary of the state’s Department of General Services, said once the buildings are taken down and environmental remediation is complete, “the former SCI-Pittsburgh property will be a highly marketable ‘pad ready’ site with the potential to increase economic development and employment opportunities within the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood.”

But it could be a while.

The governor has to find $45 million to pay for that demolition and remediation, and consultant Michael Baker estimates it will require in the neighborhood of $157 million to redevelop it.

That means SCI-Pittsburgh could be in limbo for years — just like its inhabitants once were.