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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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 in the p
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 i
Is Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted? Many People Think So.
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 Adventures, Paranormal Challenge, and Most Haunted Live; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR.”
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
Eastern State Penitentiary Tickets
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.
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.
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 taken from the Eastern State Penitentiary website and audio tour.
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