Scan of an engraving of the Western Penitentiary, Allegheny City, near Pittsburgh, PA, from Wikimedia Commons
“I have an idea for a ringtone for all of my cronies who did time in Western Pen. …there’s a whistle that blows every evening around 8:40. That sound means, to all who are ‘in the know,’ to ‘take it in,’ in prison yard vernacular.”
Today’s contributor, a male, in his fifties, is a former convicted felon and prefers to remain anonymous. I’ll call him A. He spent more than 5 years incarcerated in at Western Penitentiary, the institution in that location now is the State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh (SCI Pittsburgh). Not long ago, I met with him to record the ringtone, and to discuss the sound of the whistle from his perspective.
To ‘take it in,’ A. explained, “Means to wrap up whatever you are doing because it’s time to report back to your prison cell. You can also hear that sound in neighborhoods nearby,” said A., “but on the inside, at night, when it goes off, it means it’s lock up–you have to stop what ever you are doing, what ever conversation you are having and report back to the place where you sleep. While living with the sound in there, it was a reminder of the absence of freedom and control. Outside those walls, for me, it serves as a reminder that evokes strong feelings of gratitude now, but also a hints of trepidation. I am still under the auspices of that bureaucracy [on parole] and I had some terrifying experiences there.
My personality and mentality were very different during those years–I was involved in nefarious and criminal activity (with drugs) and I spent years in the Restrictive Housing Unit, which is ‘the hole,’ or solitary confinement. That’s where they put you when you can’t behave in jail. The whistle sounds different when you’re in solitary confinement–you can hear the activity of people going back to their cells. In solitary confinement, you feel acute loneliness and despair.”
Including this tone in the project was very important to me. A question I think about frequently when working on this project is: How does sound shape space? In working on this tone with A., I reconsidered space to include mental space–one’s psychological state.
“People may realize this or not, but for a prisoner, when that whistle goes off, your mentality changes, and so must your actions. You stop what you are doing and think, ‘What am I going to do when I get back to my cell?'”
Here sounds serve as a signal for permission or restriction. They can determine or affect one’s actions and abilities or limitations on them.
The same sound resonates differently for those outside the institution. For instance, a friend of mine who grew up in Sewickley, said that as a child, every once in a while, her family could hear the sound of the whistle when the wind carried the sound just the right way along the river. When they heard it, her father would say, “Sounds like somebody escaped!”
RECORDING THE AUDIO
The night A. and I ventured out to a neighborhood overlooking the institution to record the audio, I told him I thought I wouldn’t be able to capture decent audio on the first try. The whistle is not the sort of mechanical sound (like Russ Kovacic’s Welding Tone) that you can ask someone to re-do if your guess-timate for setting audio levels is incorrect. But we had good luck–the tone, on the first try, turned out wonderfully!
There weren’t any people around on the street the night we recorded the audio, or I would’ve asked folks in the neighborhood what they thought of the whistle.
THE WHISTLE: THE INSTITUTION’S PERSPECTIVE
I contacted SCI Pittsburgh to find out more and to allow the institution an opportunity to share what they felt was important about the sound with Locally Toned readers.
The institution declined my requests to enter the site and answer my specific questions and let me photograph the whistle, but spoke briefly with the institution’s Public Information Officer, Carol Scire, on the phone. She told me that the whistle is located in the building’s Power Plant (built in 1939), and she issued this statement to Locally Toned:
“In the event of an emergency, SCI Pittsburgh would sound the whistle, and then activate the Rapid Notify System– which is an automated telephone system that dials listed telephone numbers within a two-mile radius of the prison to inform individuals of an emergency – and immediately notify Pennsylvania State Police and local law enforcement. The whistle sounds every day at approximately 8:30 p.m. to signal the recall of the inmates to their housing units. The whistle may also be used for drills or exercises.
We want to assure the public that we are committed to public safety and are taking all necessary precautions to alert them in the event of an emergency.”
THE WHISTLE & WESTERN PEN HISTORY
There is no reference to the whistle at the Pennsylvania Department of the Main Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Western Pen file.
An antique Western Penitentiary postcard I purchased from eBay in April 2010
In other research I learned that the institution has a long history in relation to prison reform spurred on by Quakers. There’s an excellent article on The Pennsylvania Prison Society‘s website called “Prison Reform in Pennsylvania” by Norman Johnston, Ph.D. This extended quote referencing reform history at Western Penitentiary is from the Pennsylvania Correctional Industries site:
“…prison reformists focused on determining the causes of criminality. The roots of crime were thought to be found in inadequate training in school and church. Pennsylvania’s response to this penal philosophy was the construction of two state penitentiaries designed to rehabilitate offenders with a focus on inmate employment.
In 1827, the Western State Penitentiary was built in Allegheny County and in 1829 the Eastern State Penitentiary was built outside Philadelphia. Act 23 of 1829, enacted through the influence of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, ordered that the fundamental program of penal administration at both facilities be solitary confinement at hard labor. This solitary system of prison labor failed at Western Penitentiary due to the small cells, which lacked adequate air and light, making solitary work impossible. Instead, labor at Western Penitentiary was conducted in common congregate workshops and the system of solitary confinement was abandoned. In fact, an Act of 1869 allowed the desired congregation of prisoners for industrial purposes and, by 1873; the congregate shop system was installed at Western Penitentiary. During this time, Western developed a diversified industrial program where the production of shoes, cocoa mats, hosiery, and brooms continued into the twentieth century.”
The institution also housed the only Confederate Prisoners of War in Pittsburgh. From August of 1863 to March of 1864, the incarcerated included 118 Officers of the Confederate Calvary. Today SCI Pittsburgh houses “minimum to lower-medium security male inmates needing alcohol and other drug treatment.” It’s on the banks of the Ohio River and is located about 5 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
The ringtone may make you think of trains or the sounds of old steam-whistles that were set off when folks changed shifts at big factories (a sound I’m familiar with because of sitcoms and cartoons). Be sure to listen to the quiet and haunting exasperated “moans” at the end of the tone. Here’s the bittersweet Western Pen Whistle Tone–a sound that functions as an infrequent emergency alert signal, an everyday sound to those neighboring (and affiliated with) the historic institution, and if you’re someone ‘in the know,’ it may be a reminder of freedom or confinement.