As mother nature hints at warmer days to come, I look forward to exploring unique and interesting places. One of my favorites is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
If you’re like me, fascinated by the criminal mind, fading ruins, and history in its most infamous, Eastern State Penitentiary will make your day. It’s an icon of the world’s early penal system turned Philadelphia tourist attraction,
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 made her music video Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome there.)
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 Instagram. (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. 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.
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 looked like a stable built for ponies. Though the high ceilings made it airy, the stone walls, exposed pipes and 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 delusional but apparently many people shared their fantasy. Prisons based on the Pennsylvania System were built all over the world.
Most of the cells were closed, save one, that had been 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. 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.
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 came to an end 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.
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. He was caught with a concealed deadly weapon outside a local movie theater and spent eight months in Eastern State. One hundred years after the prison opened, Capone’s life was far cushier than his comrades before him.
Large portions of the prison are open for exploration while other areas opened and closed periodically throughout the day.
It was great fun to walk down the cell blocksand peek into the open doors to see what I’d find. I loved imagining the millions of tiny dramas and the few big dramas that took place throughout the decades. I wondered what it must have been like at the end: the moment silence fell upon the 142 year-old Eastern State. The moment the gates clicked shut and the last person walked away bringing an end to an era.
Unfortunately, though I spent four hours touring the prison, I didn’t make it to half the places I would have liked. By the end of the day, the temperature dropped considerably. Bundle up if you visit during cold weather. In the summer I would imagine the walls would provide a welcome respite from the heat.
I spent a good deal of time dipping into various abandoned cells on the main floor. Give yourself plenty of time and bring a tripod; the prison is dimly lit and go early during the week when fewer people are likely to get in your way.
(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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