Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison turned attraction in the Fairmount section of the city, has laid off about 40% of its staff, imposed operating budget cuts and salary reductions, and suspended “Terror Behind the Walls,” the annual Halloween haunted house, in response to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
President and CEO Sally Elk said in a news release that the decision was “the absolute last resort,” citing months of financial losses and future uncertainty.
“The strength of this organization has always been its dedicated and ambitious staff. We are heartbroken,” she said in a statement.
Eastern State, which opened to visitors in 1994, recently adopted a mission focused on criminal justice reform. But much of its revenue stems from admission fees for group tours, in addition to events such as “Terror Behind the Walls.” It could not provide exact numbers for how much of its annual revenue comes from “Terror Behind the Walls.”
The organization has earned no revenue since closing to the public on March 14. It intends to resume tours mid-July, but state-enforced social distancing guidelines will limit the number of visitors allowed.
In addition to the 29 year-round staff members laid off, the organization will not be able to employ the 300-plus people typically hired each fall for ”Terror Behind the Walls.”
Eastern State plans to replace “Terror Behind the Walls” with “smaller-scale evening tours more closely aligned with our mission,” senior vice president Sean Kelley said in a release.
Eastern State will continue to offer virtual resources that address the legacy of American criminal justice reform. This programming entails a twice-weekly video podcast, Prisons and the Pandemic, which tracks COVID-19 infection rates and deaths inside prisons; a “Searchlight Series” that addresses aspects of the pandemic in prisons; and a weekly Twitter chat, “Hidden Histories,” which explores the history of underrepresented prison populations.
A 2018 economic impact study shows that Eastern State generated $46 million for Pennsylvania, supporting 385 jobs with $18 million in earnings within the Pennsylvania economy.
Eastern State’s decision to suspend its Halloween fundraiser, which typically brings in thousands of tourists to the neighborhood, will not just adversely impact its own finances, but those of nearby restaurants and other businesses.
Brian Sirhal, co-founder of La Calaca Feliz, a contemporary Mexican restaurant down the block, said “Terror Behind the Walls” typically brings a 15% bump in sales each October. While its suspension will cause a considerable loss, Sirhal said he understands the decision.
“At the end of the day, the safety of everybody out there is much more important than the economic side of things,” he said. “It’s just what needs to be done, unfortunately.”
Sirhal added that Eastern State’s decision is similar to the choices restaurants like his have had to make in light of the coronavirus.
“You feel for everyone who has been affected by this over the last two or three months. It’s what we’re all going through and working around as we move forward,” he said.
Jack’s Firehouse, which has been in the neighborhood for 30 years, has partnered with Eastern State since it began “Terror Behind the Walls.”
Owner Mick Houston said he was not surprised by the decision, but admitted it will “make a tough situation tougher.” Houston estimated the haunted house business from Eastern State made up 40% to 50% of his overall business from late September to mid-November.
Houston added that Jack’s Firehouse will continue to do what it can to support Eastern State, especially in its mission to spread awareness to criminal justice reform.
“Now it seems more timely than ever,” Houston said, alluding to global protests against police brutality. “That line of thinking, to give people something more important to think about than a haunted house itself, we will keep supporting every way we can. We will be working tighter and harder, but we’re going to see it to the other side of this.”