Destinations

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia: A True Crime Lover’s Nirvana

View from main Mezzanine Eastern State Penitentiary

Updated March 2019

If you’re like me, fascinated by the criminal mind, fading ruins, and history in its most infamous, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia will make your day. It’s an icon of the world’s early penal system turned tourist attraction.

You may recognize its cavernous cell blocks and post-apocalyptic vibe from the 1996 Sci-Fi thriller, 12 Monkeys or Tina Turner’s music video “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

Cell 66 at Eastern State Penitentiary
One of the many doors that were added in the 1850s to cell block 1 replacing the “feeding holes” where meals were delivered to the inmates

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 madness.

Cell block 2 Eastern State Penitentiary
Heading into cell block 2 where women were housed until 1925

I first learned about the penitentiary while surfing ruin porn on Instagram. My eyes locked on a photo of a shadowy, decrepit cell, a rusted bed frame and an arched ceiling that looked pitted as if riddled 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. (Evidentally, the producers of Twelve Monkeys felt the same way). But after a little Googling, I saw it was a mere hour and a half trip by train from my home in New York City. Within a week, I was on my way.

Inside a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
One of the cells from Cell block 1. The door you see here was not part of the original design. Inmates entered and existed via a door directly behind the camera that led to an exercise area. Originally, where the door is now, there was a small opening called a feeding hole where guards slid inmate meals into the cells.
Restored cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
A restored cell from Cell block 1 showing the small door that led to the inmate’s roofless, walled-in exercise area, only slightly bigger than the cell itself

Taking the Eastern State Tour

When I arrived, I was surprised to find myself standing in front of a medieval stone castle. Somehow, I’d been transported to fifteenth-century England.

Opened in 1829, the penitentiary originally stood 2 miles outside of Philadelphia. After decades of expansion, the prison is now 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.

View past the gate of cellblock 2 Eastern State Penitentiary
A view down cell block 2’s dilapidated hallway

At the entrance, huge towers anchored a high stone wall circling the prison and a half mile in length. Two large Gargoyles peered down at me from a ledge which I later learned were props from the prison’s biggest annual event, “Terror Behind the Walls”, considered to be one of the scariest haunted houses on Halloween in the country. 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 old barber chair in a cell in Eastern State Penitentiary
“In almost every cell block at Eastern State, one cell was converted into an inmate barbershop. The cells were equipped with fluorescent lights, outlets, mirrors, and barber chairs. Inmates were trained to be barbers, and issued straight razors for shaving their “customers.”

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.

People walking in Eastern State Penitentiary
Visitors walking through the penitentiary

My first stop was cell block 1 and I was immediately hit with the fact that life in the 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 looked like a stable built for ponies.

High ceilings made the building feel open and airy but the stone walls, exposed pipes, and institutional lighting made it oppressive, which I guess makes sense, considering.

Al Capone's Cell in Eastern State Penitentiary
Al Capone’s cell. The furniture is not original but correct according to a journalist’s account at the time. The Philadelphia Public ledger: “The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish.”

A Leader In Reform ( A little Eastern State Penitentiary History)

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 delusional but apparently many people shared their fantasy. Prisons based on the Pennsylvania System were subsequently built all over the world.

Inside an old cell in Eastern State Penitentiary

Most of the cells were as is, save one that was restored.  It had a wood floor and a skylight called the “eye-of-God” and vaulted ceilings that echoed the design of the hallway. The room was designed to have a “church-like” appearance in hopes that it would inspire spiritual reflection and rehabilitation.

Prisoners spent 23 hours in their cells sleeping, eating or engaged in “honest work” such as repairing shoes, caning chairs, weaving fabric or dying cloth.

An iron door at the back led to a tiny, roofless, walled area. There, inmates would exercise for half an hour twice a day. They were not allowed visitors or letters from home.

Along Cell Block 7 Eastern State Penitentiary
A view of the catwalk on the second floor of cell block 7 where 19 women were incarcerated.

Prisoners were separated by masonry 20 inches thick and silence was mandatory. To be caught talking resulted in a diet of bread and water or worse, a gag and a straight jacket. Guards played their part, wearing wool socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps.

The First in 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. 

In 1935, solitary confinement came to an end, 106 years after the prison opened. Inmates began to share cells and new construction added an additional skylight.

Two guests at Eastern State Penitentiary

Visually, my favorite area of the penitentiary was cell block 7 with its 30-foot ceilings and double-decker cells. The lighting and shadows illuminated the various patterns of corrosion and peeling paint.

You’ll See Al Capone’s Cell

My second favorite area was Al Capone’s cell, recreated from a journalist’s account written in a local paper. Inside was a fine rug, a real bed, a cabinet radio, multiple lamps, and a French cabinet.

Al Capone's Cell in Eastern State Penitentiary
Al Capone’s cell. The furtniture is not original but accurate according to a journalist’s account at the time. The Philadelphia Public ledger: “The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish.”

Capone was incarcerated after being caught with a concealed deadly weapon outside a local movie theater and spent eight months in Eastern State. Serving his sentence ine hundred years after the prison opened, Capone’s life was far cushier than his comrades before him.

Is Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted? Many People Think So.

Inside a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Cell block 7 home of prison plaster worker Clarence Klinedinst and his cellmate, William Russell. They dug a tunnel (see next image) and twelve men escaped briefly in 1945.

Dating back to the 1940’s, both guards and inmates reported strange sounds, strange sightings, and other eerie events in Eastern State. Experts in the paranormal have studied the prison on countless occasions and according to the penitentiary’s website has been featured on

“SyFy’s Ghost Hunters; the Travel Channel’s Ghost AdventuresParanormal Challenge, and Most Haunted Live; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR.”

Visitors check out the tunnel entrance dug by Clarence Klinedinst and his cellmate, William Russell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Visitors check out the tunnel entrance dug by Clarence Klinedinst and his cellmate, William Russell. The tunnel went fifteen feet down, ninety-seven feet out to Fairmount Avenue and fifteen feet up to freedom. They equipped the tunnel with lights and shored it with wood bracing.

Photography Tips

There are a lot of really interesting images to make but be prepared for a lot of low-light conditions. You’ll definitely want to bring a tripod. Give yourself plenty of time to capture your photos. Your best bet is to go soon after the prison opens during the week when fewer people are likely to get in your way. Otherwise, you’ll spend a long time trying to shoot around visitors.

(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).


Admission information for Eastern State Penitentiary

Everyday from 10am – 5pm (4pm is last entry)

Large portions of the prison are open for exploration while other areas (such as the hospital) are opened and closed for short periods of time throughout the day.

Eastern State Penitentiary Tickets

  1. 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.) Purchase tickets online HERE and save $2.00 per person or buy when you arrive.

  2. Tours

    Audio tour “The Voices of Eastern State”, interactive experiences, history and art exhibits are included in general admission tickets.
    Guided tours are between 8:00 am to 3:30 pm.

    A guided tour with interpretation is available at 2:00 pm every day.

  3. Note:

    The prison has no environmental control. It’s very cold in the winter and likewise, hot in the summer. Dress accordingly. Plus, wear shoes you’ll be comfortable in. Leave flip-flops and sandals at home.

  4. Accessibility

    Unfortunately, Eastern State is not completely ADA compliant, check this visitor information page for further details.

*Facts taken from the Eastern State Penitentiary website and audio tour.


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91 replies »

    • I’m so sorry for answering this late. I’ve been changing hosts and back end stuff and it’s been a nightmare. Thank you so much for your kind comment. I really appreciate it. 🙂

  1. Isn’t it amazing place? Your photos really capture the visual textures of the buildings and convey something of the atmosphere of the place. We live in the Philly ‘burbs and took a family trip to ESP in November of 2016. It’s a fascinating place and I thought the audio tour was really well done. It was not crazily busy when we were there so it wasn’t too tricky to take human-free photographs. I don’t have a tripod so I just braced myself against door frames, walls, and the shoulder of one of my sons.

    • Hi Laura! So nice to hear from you. I thought you’d left me.

      It’s an unusual place to tell people to go who haven’t been there but once you go it makes perfect sense. 😁

      • Well I love cemeteries and old, abandoned buildings so it is right up my street.

        Nope, haven’t left you. I have been reading along the whole time. I just don’t always have the time to comment since I tend to pick up my phone to read in odd, snatched moments. I have been enjoying all of your posts and wonderful images.

      • I’m thrilled you didn’t leave. I was concerned that perhaps my posts had gone in a direction you didn’t like.

  2. Wow! one of the best blogs I read! complemented with lovely photography! I am a beginner for blogging, but you gave me lot of idea.. Great work Susan!

  3. Your photos are stunning, they make the cells almost look like the victims! They appear so delicate and raw; absolutely love them, a place that’s definitely on the bucket list now!

  4. Thank you! That was a very interesting description both of the Prison and your day there! If you ever go to Ireland, Kilmainham Jail in Dublin takes some beating.

  5. Great photos! I did the Halloween tour a few years ago. Scared me stupid! LOL. But it was awesome and incredibly creepy! I wouldn’t mind returning during the daytime to go through again. 🙂

  6. That is fascinating! I would love to visit. I love abandoned buildings. They put chills up my spine but in a good way. In a I’m-freaked-out-but-of-my-own-volition kind of way. The best kind of chills!

    • Ha! I know exactly what you mean.i love things like that. I also like imagining what was happening between those walls when it was brand new. The drama and intrigue must have been outrageous.

  7. First timer reading your blog. It was really amazing. Incredible foto!!! Loved the ‘ruin porn’ term …. (must be a real fun hashtag also LOL)

    I’m from Mexico City. Since 1976, our National Archive is placed at Lecumberri Palace at the north eastern side of the city. In Mexico, this place is commonly known as The Black Palace of Lecumberri because it used to be a prison in the 1900 during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. In fact, one of the famous prisoners that was kept at the Black Palace was the historic mexican revolutioner Pancho Villa. If you google some images of the place you may find a lot of resemblance with the Eastern State Penitentiary.

    Love from Mexico City,
    OMM

  8. You took some wonderful photos.

    I kept thinking about the crimes that were committed to send men there… and wonder if any were incarcerated by mistake (or on purpose). How many died there and how the guards must have felt as trapped as the inmates, at times.

  9. Vivid writing and images – Thanks for sharing – I’ve just typed ‘ruin porn’ into a work laptop and now await my imminent sacking…

  10. Great photos!
    I used to live a few blocks away from this place, it’s creepy. We toured it when I first moved to the area and you have to assume it is haunted after you walk through the halls. I then heard they make it into a haunted house in the fall. Nope. No way.

  11. Normally, I have a firm policy of not entering a prison voluntarily, but your essay and images are making me reconsider. Seriously, though, this was a really thorough and informative post. Thanks for putting it together. (Great tip on the tripod)

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