Forget Alcatraz, Al Capone Was Here First
If you’re like me, fascinated by the criminal mind, fading ruins, and history in its most infamous, Philadelphia’s once abandoned prison Eastern State Penitentiary will make your day. It was Al Capone’s one-time residence and an icon of the world’s early penal system.
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.”
You’d be surprised how entertaining a 187-year-old dilapidated Philly 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.
The Abandoned Philly Prison is only 1.5 Hours by Train from New York City
I first learned about the penitentiary surfing ruin porn on Instagram. My eyes locked onto a photo of a shadowy, decrepit cell, a rusted bed frame, a pitted arched ceiling as if bullets found their way skyward.
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 that it was a prison and a mere hour and a half trip by train from my home in New York City. Within a week, I was on my way.
Taking the Eastern State Penitentiary Tour: A History of Punishment
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 with a Kia and a Lexus parked in front.
Opened in 1829, the penitentiary originally stood 2 miles outside of Philadelphia. After decades of expansion, the prison is now in the heart of the city surrounded by a residential neighborhood. Juxtaposed to local restaurants, stores, and homes, its imposing facade is all the more impressive.
Huge towers flanked the massive entrance, and a 30-foot stone wall a half-mile long surrounds the prison. 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 Halloween haunted houses 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 was abandoned for nearly 20 years, giving the elements and time the opportunity to work their magic on the prison’s plaster and stone. Today, it’s maintained as a functional ruin, peppered with a few restored areas to give visitors a glimpse of what it looked like in its heyday. Photos and 3-D models of floor plans sprinkled here and there also provide valuable context.
There’s a Very Cool Prison Audio Tour
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 choice considering his character was the boss of an early 20th-century crime syndicate.
I love good audio tours and the penitentiary was both informative and entertaining.
Cell block 1
My first stop was cell block 1 and I was hit with the fact that life in the p
High ceilings made the building feel open and airy but the stone walls, exposed pipes, and institutional lighting were fittingly oppressive.
A Leader In Reform ( A little Eastern State Penitentiary History)
The prison was built in 1821 with the philosophy that strict solitary confinement could lead to criminal reform. “Early reformers saw solitary confinement, not as a punishment, but as an opportunity for reflection. A chance to become penitent.”* Hence the term penitentiary. The concept was coined the “Pennsylvania System,” and Eastern State was its masterpiece.
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 left as is, save one that was restored. The original rooms had a wood floor, a skylight called the “eye-of-God” and vaulted ceilings that echoed 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 of each cell led to a tiny, roofless, walled area. There, inmates would exercise for half an hour twice a day. They were never allowed visitors or letters from home.
Prisoners were separated by 20 inches of masonry 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 keep all the convicts in a solitary environment, the cells had central heating, running water, and cast iron toilets that flushed once a day. While hardly impressive now, back then even the White House didn’t have such conveniences. President Andrew Jackson still used a chamber pot.
Solitary confinement came to an end in 1935, 106 years after the prison opened. Inmates started sharing cells and new construction added an additional skylight to the block.
Two Must-See Spots: Cell Block 7 and Al Capone’s Cell
There are two places within the penitentiary you shouldn’t miss: cell block 7 and Al “Scarface” Capone’s cell. Block 7 boasts two floors and 30-foot ceilings. Daylight streaming through the skylights cast an eerie glow on the ravaged walls and peeling paint. It was very photogenic in that “ruin-porn” kind of way.
After being caught with a concealed deadly weapon outside a local movie theater, Capone spent eight months behind Eastern State Penitentiary’s stone walls. However, Capone’s stay 100 years after the prison opened, was far cushier than his comrades before him.
According to the Philadephia Tribune Ledger in 1929, “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…”
The image above is the way I saw the cell during my visit. In 2019, it was fully restored with plaster, white paint, and period furnishings.
Is Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted? Many People Think So
Dating back to the 1940s, both guards and inmates reported strange sounds, peculiar sightings, and other eerie events. 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 Adventures, Paranormal Challenge, and Most Haunted Live; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR.”
Who knows for sure.
Photographing Philly’s Abandoned Prison
There are dozens of interesting photographic possibilities but 90% are a lot of low-light conditions; a tripod is a must.
Give yourself plenty of time. Your best bet is to go during the week soon after the prison opens. You’ll have fewer people to contend with. Otherwise, you’ll spend a long time waiting for visitors to move out of your frame.
(Note: 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
Hours: Every day from 10 am – 5 pm (Last entry is 4 pm)
Large portions of the prison are open for exploration while other areas (such as the
Eastern State Penitentiary Tickets
Adults: $17.00; Seniors $15.00; $13.00 (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.
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.
Guide-led Tour and Discussion
There is a Guide-led Tour and Discussion in 2021 are every Saturday and Sunday starting on September 18, 2021, at 10 am. Tickets are valid only on the date selected. the Guide-led Tour and Discussion tickets also include all of the programs included with the General Admission ticket. The guide-led tour and discussion begin promptly at 10:00 am.
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.
Unfortunately, Eastern State is not completely ADA compliant, check this visitor information page for further details.
*Facts are taken from the Eastern State Penitentiary website and audio tour.
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