For the first time in 29 years, Eastern State Penitentiary museum has a new leader

Kerry Sautner will take over the historic prison museum in Philadelphia.

A view of the exterior of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nearly 30 years after its transformation from an abandoned, derelict prison into an iconic museum for criminal justice reform, Eastern State Penitentiary will now be led by someone new.

Kerry Sautner, currently Chief Learning Officer at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, has been named president and CEO, succeeding founding director Sara Jane “Sally” Elk, who started giving hardhat tours of the dilapidated site in Fairmount in 1994. Elk became its first paid director in 2000.

Kerry Sautner poses for a photo outdoors on a sunny day.
Kerry Sautner is the newly named president and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary.

“Huge shoes to fill,” Sautner said of her predecessor. “That is some amazing and powerful work when you look at the history. This was a decrepit institution filled with trees.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Eastern State Penitentiary conducted a national search for its new leader, eventually choosing Sautner from just across town.

“With impressive qualifications and a passion for museums and the power of place, Dr. Sautner is the leader we need to guide Eastern State through its next era of growth, engagement, and impact,” board chair John McInerney said in a statement.

America’s oldest penitentiary built to isolate prisoners in 1829, Eastern State was shut down in 1971 and abandoned. When it reopened as a public museum, it became known for its creepy hallways and prison cells that had started to disintegrate. It is the site of a nationally recognized haunted attraction, “Terror Behind the Walls,” and has been used as a location for music videos: most notably “One of the Living” (1985) by the recently deceased Tina Turner, who selected the site for its resemblance to her post-apocalyptic film of the time “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

More recently, the historic prison museum has made strong curatorial moves to engage visitors in the national conversation about criminal justice reform. In the former exercise yard is a giant steel bar graph showing America’s exponential incarceration rate over time. Temporary exhibitions highlight experiences of those incarcerated.

“I think the biggest asset of Eastern State Penitentiary is that they believe in first-person accounts,” Sautner said. “They believe in ensuring that the people that have been affected by that system, their voice and their agency, is amplified and held as the center of the dialogue.”

Sautner will begin her new role on July 11. Elk has agreed to stay on for a short while to help her and the organization through the leadership transition.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal