As mother nature hints at warmer days to come, my desire to explore unique and interesting places jumps into high gear. One of my favorite excursions, not only from an experience perspective but photographically as well, was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
If you’re like me, fascinated with by the criminal mind, fading ruins, and history in its most infamous, Eastern State Penitentiary, an icon of the world’s early penal system turned Philadelphia tourist attraction, will make your day. Al Capone called it home for nearly a year, and you may recognize its cavernous cell blocks and post-apocalyptic vibe from the 1996, Sci-Fi thriller, 12 Monkeys. (Admission information below). (Fun Facts: Sting shot the cover for his album All This Time in the prison’s courtyard and Tina Turner’s Music Video made for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was also shot here.)
You’d be surprised how entertaining a 187 year-old dilapidated prison can be with its requisite peeling paint and decaying architecture. It has a wonderfully sordid past filled with prison breaks, nefarious criminals, and a philosophy of rehabilitation that pushed some inmates to the brink of insanity.
I first learned of Eastern State while surfing ruin porn on flickr. (Yes, that’s a real term referring to beautiful images of abandoned buildings. Get your mind out of the gutter. ) My eyes locked on a photo of a shadowy, decrepit cell, a rusted bed frame and an arched ceiling that looked pitted as if shot with bullets. I loved it.
At first I assumed the image was from an insane asylum—it had a spooky, surreal quality that had crazy-town written all over it. (I guess the producers of Twelve Monkeys felt the same way). Of course, it was that spooky, surreal quality that captured my attention.
Touring Eastern State
A perfect distance for a day trip from Manhattan, I took the hour and a half train ride from Penn Station to Philadelphia, followed by a brief cab ride to the prison. When I arrived, I was surprised to find myself standing in front of a medieval castle. Somehow, I’d been transported to fifteenth century England.
Opened in 1829, the penitentiary originally stood 2 miles outside of Philadelphia, but decades of expansion now finds it surrounded by a residential neighborhood in the heart of the city. Juxtaposed to local restaurants, stores and homes, its imposing facade is all the more interesting.
At the entrance, huge towers play sentry at the front, anchoring a high stone wall, a half mile in length, that encircles the prison. I looked up to see two large Gargoyles peering down at me from a ledge and later learned that they were props from the prison’s annual Terror Behind the Walls, Halloween event. Frankly, they didn’t seem out-of-place. All the prison lacked was a moat.
Closed in the early seventies, the penitentiary sat abandoned for nearly 20 years giving the elements and time the opportunity to work their magic on the buildings. Today, its maintained as a functional ruin, peppered with a few restored areas to give visitors a glimpse of what it looked like in its hey-day. Photos and 3-D models of floor plans sprinkled here and there also provide valuable context.
An audio tour is free with admission via a palm-sized “Acoustiguide” you wear around your neck. (Tip: if you don’t like using public headphones you can use your own.)
Actor / director Steve Buscemi of Boardwalk Empire fame, narrates the tour. A fitting selection considering his character in the series is the boss of an early 20th century crime syndicate. I love good audio tours and this one was both informative and entertaining.
My first stop was cell block 1, and I was immediately hit with the fact that life at Eastern State Penitentiary was far from peachy—not that I expected it would be, but things like that always hit you a little differently when you see it in person.
A long, vaulted hallway stretched out before me with countless doors on both sides that were shorter than one would expect—the size forced inmates to duck, slowing them down if there was a riot or escape attempt. It reminded me of a horse stable, except this looked like it was built for ponies. Though airy from the high ceilings, the heavy stone walls and floors, exposed pipes and antique institutional lighting were oppressive, which I guess makes sense, considering.
A leader in reform
Eastern State Penitentiary was built on the philosophy that strict solitary confinement could lead to criminal reform. “Early reformers saw solitary confinement, not as a punishment, but an as opportunity for reflection. A chance to become penitent.”* Hence the term penitentiary. This concept was coined the “Pennsylvania System”.
I would like to argue that the powers-that-be were a tad delusional but apparently a lot of people shared their fantasy, inspiring prisons based on the Pennsylvania System to be built all over the world.
Most of the cells I saw were closed, save one, where the room had been restored. There was a wood floor and a skylight—called the “eye-of-God”— at the top of the vaulted ceilings that echoed the design of the hallway. The room was deliberately designed with a church-like” appearance to inspire spiritual reflection along with a bed and a workbench. An iron door led to a tiny, roofless, walled area where an inmate would exercise for half an hour twice a day.
Prisoners in the early years spent 23 hours a day in their cells sleeping, eating or engaging in “honest work” such as repairing shoes, caning chairs, weaving fabric or dying cloth. They were not allowed visitors or letters from home. Silence was mandatory. Prisoners were separated by 20 inches of masonry, and guards wore wool socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps. To be caught talking could result in a diet of bread and water or worse, a gag and a straight jacket.
Modern conveniences (sort of)
To house all the convicts in a solitary environment, the cells had central heating, running water and cast iron toilets that flushed once a day. While not impressive now, back then even the White House didn’t have such conveniences, and President Andrew Jackson still used a chamber pot. Solitary confinement as the norm was ended in 1935, 106 years after the prison opened. Prisoners began to share cells and new construction added an additional skylight.
Probably my favorite area of the penitentiary was cell block 7 with its 30-foot ceilings and double-decker cells. The lighting and shadows were especially interesting illuminating the various patterns of corrosion and peeling paint, making the entire area particularly photogenic. I shot a lot on the mezzanine level overlooking the cell block, a popular spot for most visitors, and there were plenty of them, as it was a Saturday and I often had to wait to take my shots.
My second favorite area was Al Capone’s cell, restored from a journalist’s account. It boasted a fine rug, a real bed, a cabinet radio, multiple lamps and a french cabinet. He spent nearly nine months in Eastern State Penitentiary after being caught with a concealed deadly weapon outside a local movie theater. Incarcerated 100 years after the prison opened, Capone’s stay seemed far cushier than that of his comrades before him. After reading a variety of conflicting reports after my visit, I’m still not sure if what is in the cell is correct. But even if it’s not, it looked very cool.
While a large part of the prison remains open meandering, areas like the Synagogue, Chaplin’s office (where an inmate painted a variety of religious murals), underground punishment cells, an operating room and a dozen other places, are opened periodically throughout the day for a limited period of time. Well versed prison guides are there to provide a little narrative about the specific area and answer any questions visitors might have.
It was great fun to walk down the various cell blocks and peek into the open doors to see what I’d find. Sometimes it was a lone chair or a small table, other times it was an entire room in decayed disarray. I loved imagining the millions of tiny dramas and the few, scattered big dramas that transpired throughout the decades, and then what it must have been like at the end: the moment when silence fell upon the 142 year-old Eastern State. The moment the gates clicked shut and the last person walked away bringing an and to an era.
Unfortunately, even though I spent four hours touring the prison, I didn’t make it to half the places I would have liked. It was getting late and the temperature started to drop inside the prison enough to make me wonder if I would find fresh beef hanging around the next corner. If you’re going during cold weather, be sure to bundle up. During the summer I would imagine walls would be a welcome respite from the heat.
I spent a good deal of time dipping into various abandoned cells on the main floor. It was a good thing I brought my tripod because a large part of the prison is dimly lit, the cells being the darkest. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time. You’ll have to wait for crowds to get move out of your shot. If you can go during the week and on the earlier side, you’re likely to have fewer people to contend with.
(FYI: To use a tripod, monopod or easel within the penitentiary, visitors must acquire an equipment pass at the admissions desk for an extra $10, which is valid all season).
Images from back in the day.
Admission information for Eastern State Penitentiary
Everyday from 10am – 5pm (4pm is last entry)
- General Admission: Adults: $14.00, Seniors $12.00, $10.00 (tickets include “The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour, hands-on history interactive experiences, history exhibits and artist installations.)
- Guided tours available
- Purchase tickets online HERE or buy when you arrive.
*Facts taken from the Eastern State Penitentiary website or audio tour.
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