Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Posted on
Oct 21, 2013
Posted in: Attractions, Museums

I’m starting to realize I visit a lot of old prisons. Well, maybe not a lot, but certainly more than the average person. Enough to where I can roam around one and find myself thinking something like, “This old prison reminds me of that other old prison!”

Can I tell you something? When you realize you’ve visited so many prisons that you can compare one to the other, it becomes sort of disconcerting. And you start to wonder why you can’t have a normal, healthy hobby, like tennis or mahjong or whatever it is that functional, healthy people spend their time doing.

But then you realize that tennis has always sort of confused you (30-love? What does that even mean?), and you don’t know anything about mahjong except that it sort of looks like complicated dominoes. So you go back to roaming cities and wandering around old prisons and it’s all rather creepy and exciting in precisely the same way that tennis isn’t.

So when, during our week visit to Philadelphia, I was told about Eastern State Penitentiary, an old prison turned museum, there was no doubt of how I would be spending at least one day of my trip.

Unfortunately, the day happened to be rainy and grey, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter in prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary (or, to use a delightfully creepy acronym, ESP), was built in the early part of the 19th century, after several decades of discussion and planning. It was, like many prisons built at that time, supposed to be revolutionary (as was Kilmainham, in Dublin) – a response to the jails that preceded it.

Prior to that time, jails were merely enormous rooms into which all manner of criminals – everyone from petty thieves to murderers – were held together. Even children would be locked up (either for crimes they committed, because everyone was tried as an adult, or because they had no other place to go when their own parents were imprisoned). It was incarceration for the whole family! Inside, it was a state of pure chaos (there were no mental institutions at this time, either, so often the insane were tossed in there, too, because why not?).

In the late 1700s, a group of prominent Philadelphians, including Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush, decided to do something about the jail system in their state. They established The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prison.

The group was dedicated to finding the best wedding cakes in the region.

NO! I’m just kidding! The group was dedicated to alleviating the miseries of public prisons. I was just making sure you were still paying attention.

“It’ll be the bestest club, ever. And NO GIRLS allowed.”

They decided to create a new prison, the design of which would help foster regret and penitence in the incarcerated, thus rehabilitating them. This would be done not through corporeal punishment or abuse (which was the di riguer form of rehabilitation), but through isolation and physical labor.

From the ESP website:

The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

Each inmate had his own cell, and at the back of the cell opened up to a small, private courtyard where they could get exercise and fresh air. Keep in mind, though, the courtyards had high walls, and were quite small. They were only allowed one hour out of their cell each day, and pains were taken so that they weren’t out at the same time as their neighbors, ensuring their continued isolation. To further increase their isolation, hoods would be placed over their heads any time they might be in contact with other humans – even guards.

For the rest of the time, inmates were locked inside their small rooms.

This model shows a cell block at ESP. Notice the small, high-walled courtyards on the outside of each of the cells.

The wreckage of a courtyard, behind one of the cells.

 

And while that seems a bit rough, keep in mind that prisoners as ESP were treated far, far better than those in other parts of the country or the world. Eastern State served prisoners hot meals every day, and each cell had a skylight, its own toilet, and heating. That’s right: it was one of the first buildings ever to have running water and a heating system – luxuries that not even the president enjoyed at that time.

The outside of the building was nevertheless designed to look intimidating to those who entered – like a sort of medieval castle. And sure enough, when my friend Nora (who graciously gave me a ride) dropped me off out front, I may have mumbled “Dear god” under my breath.

I mean, the place has friggin turrets:

Note: the gargoyles are NOT authentic; they are merely Halloween decor for the haunted house that takes place at the ESP this time of year. But they still freaked me out.

The original design of the prison was seven cell-blocks radiating from a central axis point, like spokes of a wheel.

From this central location, a guard could easily look down each of the cellblocks and see all the doors to each of the cells (once again, I was reminded of Kilmainham, and the panopticon style of the cellblocks there).

At least, that was the architect’s intent. Almost immediately, though, the original design was compromised. By the time the third cellblock was completed, the prison was already overcapacity. Many of the subsequent cellblocks were built with a second story up top, which meant that a guard could no longer easily look down and see all the cells.

Looking down one of the two-story cell-blocks.

The interior of ESP designed to look a little like a monastery. High, vaulted ceilings, white-washed walls, skylights and high windows.

It was thought that this would help foster rehabilitation – the inmates had nothing but “light from heaven” shining down on them.

The ESP gained worldwide attention. At the time, it was one of the most expensive buildings ever built, and prisons everywhere were modeled after it. Tourists came from all around – even as far as Europe – to tour the facility (remember, it was the 1800s, so traveling, like, three blocks would take you a month or something). With the increased attention came criticism. Many declared that the solitary confinement imposed on the prisoners was unhealthy, and that isolation would leave them ill-prepared to reenter society when the time came.

It seemed that ESP was not living up to the high expectations placed upon it.

Door to one of the cells at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Even the prison’s technological advancements proved to be lacking. The heating system was fueled by coal, and many of the inmates became ill with exposure to carbon monoxide. The plumbing system was constantly backing up. Disease spread easily through the facility.

By the late 19th century, it became clear that the ESP’s model of isolation and redemption was a failure. Apparently isolating someone from society does not, in fact, make them a functional member of society. Go figure.

Over the years, the solitary confinement approach was whittled away before it was abandoned entirely. More cellblocks were added, placed in between existing blocks. Cells now held two or three inmates, and the exterior courtyards were eventually demolished. A mess hall was built, as well as several exercise fields and recreational facilities.

The prison continued to be overcrowded, and upkeep for the enormous facility became incredibly difficult. Eventually, in the early 1970s, Eastern State Penitentiary closed. The city purchased the site in the 1980s, and there were plans for developing it. The ideas were strange and somewhat inappropriate – there was talk of putting in a shopping center, or apartment buildings, within the prison walls. The public successfully petitioned the government to stop the development and turn the location into a museum.

Which is a shame, because what this place really needs is an Orange Julius.

I took the guided tour, which walked through all of the facility’s history. It took us slightly over an hour, and we were able to explore several cellblocks that were otherwise closed to the public. Still, it wasn’t entirely comprehensive (not because the tour guide wasn’t wonderful, but because there’s a LOT of history to cover), and I didn’t have time to take all the photos I would have liked. So after the tour group dispersed, and I began to wander around the old prison on my own.

Which, I suspect, is how many horror movies begin.

And indeed, it was kind of creepy. I found a sign telling me that “The Klondike” – where prisoners in the early 20th century were sent for solitary confinement – was just down a set of stairs. I followed them, the ceiling so low that I barely could fit underneath it, and found a little alcove under one of the cell blocks.

It did not look like a nice place. It was more a crawl space than anything else. It led to a row of small, windowless cells.

Prisoners would be confined down here – alone – for up to two weeks. There was no natural or artificial light (the lamps are for the benefit of museum guests, and a new addition), no human contact, and very little food or water. The practice was abandoned in the 1950s.

Thoroughly creeped out, I headed back above ground. I took a few photos of some of the prison yards, and then darted inside a doorway when the rain began to fall too heavily.

A sign on the wall informed me that I had stepped into cellblock 15, which had been the final addition to the facility. This was where death row inmates were held.

“Oh, hell no,” I whispered, but nevertheless took a tentative step inside.

There was a panel on the wall with buttons corresponding to each of the cells – this cellblock had been the only one with electric doors.

Sufficiently spooked by my surroundings, I wandered back outside, and found that there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere.

Yeah, pretty sure this is DEFINITELY how horror movies start.

I decided perhaps it was time to return to a more populated part of the prison. I wandered back to the center hub, where all the cellblock spokes met.

Things here were marginally less creepy. Marginally.

In the 1920s, Al Capone was briefly incarcerated at the prison, and his accommodations illustrated how greatly times had changed. No longer were prisoners forced to sit alone with no contact from the outside world. Capone was able to outfit his cell with furniture and paintings; there was even a radio.

A re-creation of Capone’s cell at ESP.

The prison is in a state of “sustained ruin”. They aren’t actively restoring it, but they are taking pains to make sure it doesn’t fall to the ground. The result is wonderful: ugly and beautiful all at once.

Thanks a lot, Obamacare!

I loved the Eastern State Penitentiary – all in all, I spent nearly two hours there, between the guided tour and exploring by myself. I thought it was wonderful, but I understand that it’s not everyone’s idea of fun.

I happen to like wandering around old prisons by myself, slipping into cellblocks that are almost certainly haunted. And that’s probably a good thing, too, because I’m pretty sure that I’d suck at tennis.

—————

The Essentials on Eastern State Penitentiary:

  • Verdict: Yes. If you have time, this is a great way to spend a morning. Much of the ESP is covered, so even on a grey day, you can walk around (it does get quite chilly, though, so be sure to bundle up).
  • How to Get There: I got a ride there (thanks again, Nora!), but took a city bus back into town. It’s close to several bus lines, and it’s a designated stop for both the Big Bus and The Philadelphia Trolly Works.
  • Ideal for: history nerds, true-crime fans, and anyone who likes off-beat, spooky stuff. I think this place would be a blast for teenagers, and also for people who suck at tennis.
  • Insider tips: wear comfy shoes (there’s lots of walking to be done), and be sure to pee before you arrive (the only facilities are port-o-potties). Admission will either get you a guided tour or an audio tour. I did the former, which wasn’t quite as comprehensive as I would have liked, but still wonderful. I’ve heard that the audio tour is wonderful as well, and look who it is narrated by:
    That’s right: Steve frickin’ Buscemi. Which is the bestest thing I have ever heard of, ever.
  • Nearby food: There’s nothing inside the facility, but there are a few cafes and restaurants within a short walking distance. I went to Fare, which was delicious, but perhaps a bit too frou-frou if you just want a quick bite.
  • Good for kids: The museum is not recommended for children under 7, and the audio tour is recommended for ages 12 and up. There are some special exhibits and tours for children, but I think that this place would be best appreciated by anyone in middle school or older.

Leave a Comment

  • Jay

    I am fascinated by prisons so this would be up my alley should I ever find myself in Philadelphia.

    The evolution of the prison system is quite interesting – I had no idea that penitentiary came from penitent.

  • TheOtherLisa

    I’m actually planning our next “vacation” around a visit here, so this was a great primer. (Well, here and the zoo. Love me some tigers.)

  • This was a great post! Your photos really captured the essence! I would love to wander around there. And it would definitely make a fabulous spot for a Halloween Haunted House. Super freaky!

  • I skipped three or four paragraphs ’cause, like many healthy persons, I don’t have a passion for prisons. But I did enjoy the pics!

  • Sandra

    We went here on a visit to Philly b/c it was included on the CityPass. I never thought a tourist site could change my life, but I truly came out a different person. I had never really thought about prisons before – what their purpose was and whether they are successful at it. I took the audio tour, which is really thoughtful and interesting. When I was there, they had art installations scattered about, which was really cool, too. I tell everyone who is going to Philadelphia to check it out.

  • Beth

    So excited to read you were in Philly. Did you go to the Mutter Museum?

  • Jen

    I had never heard of this place, but if I am ever in Philadelphia I will be sure to check it out. Even the post creeped me out, so I am sure going in person would be even worse, but it looks so interesting I am willing to risk it.

  • Creepy. Also, that’s hilarious about the gargoyles.

  • Jake Goldblum

    should go for halloween- they dress up the whole prison and make it a really large haunted house. Pretty amazing but it is a great tour regardless

  • Jenny

    My dad’s a photographer. Back when they were thinking about redeveloping the place – before they turned it into a museum – he got a gig taking photographs there. I went along – I was probably about 10 or 11. CREEPTASTIC. the place is great.

    They host Bastille Day festival t every year, and fling Tastykakes from the towers (“Let them eat Tastykakes!”).

    • Everywhereist

      That sounds like the greatest thing ever.

  • Stacey

    I’m flying to Philadelphia tomorrow for a conference. I’m so happy that the government reopened! Any other suggestions from locals on food, beverage, and sites?

    • Reading Terminal Market ( for lunch) , especially if you’ll be at the Convention Center which is pretty much next door. (There’s a post about it on my blog). The 2 Hop On, Hop Off bus tours also start from outside the side of the Market next to the Marriott.

      • Stacey

        I used that hop on/off bus as my personal taxi! The Reading Terminal Market is wonderful! I really loved Philadelphia.

  • So glad you visited Eastern State Penitentiary! Jack’s Firehouse across the street is a good place to eat nearby. And Terror Behind the Walls (the haunted house at ESP) is a whole different kind of scary.

  • Wanderingone

    Stacey I’m not a local but lived in Philly for around a year. Go to Reading Terminal Market. Indoor market with produce vendors and restaurants etc. Definitely get a cannoli or two or fifty. Also, I’m assuming they are still there, stop by the Amish stand. They serve hot food such as soup and that sort of thing and it is delicious. They also make the best baked pretzels, kind of like the ones you get at stadiums except these aren’t 100 years old and actually taste good. I miss Reading Terminal Market.

    • Anisa

      mmmm. Reading Terminal market. mmmmm. Amish pretzels.
      Yes, definitely go to terminal market.

  • Ashley

    My husband and I spend a lot of time visiting graveyards while we’re traveling, so it’s always nice to find other people that live to spend their time seeing things that others might consider odd :).

  • I love the architecture of old prisons – they are always so beautiful on the outside… perhaps making up for what was kept on the inside. I have been on a few prison tours, most recently Boise Idaho. I found it fascinating that part of their rehabilitation process was to paint the walls in pastel colors to recondition the prisons. It was a nice try but it didn’t save the prison from two full on riots in the 1970’s!

  • These pictures look scaring but it’s be very interesting to visit such kind of places.

  • Ah! My husband just mentioned this place to me yesterday; he wants to drag me to their haunted house tomorrow night. I don’t know if I can handle it…but if Steve Buscemi was there, and his voice walks me through it beforehand, somehow it makes me feel safer.

  • I’ve been to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin., but have I ever been inside ESP? No—because I live in Philly. It’s not quite as bad as folks who live here and have never visited the Liberty Bell, but close. Disgraceful for a self anointed travel blogger.

  • stephanie

    the haunted house at ESP is AWESOME!! it is fun, and scary, and educational. which is weird for a haunted house.

  • Eliz

    I remembered listening to a Radiolab episode about this prison and sure enough here it is!

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/91511-crime-and-penitence/

    Given your love of learning (something I share) I think this further insight into the prison is something you may enjoy 🙂

  • So after reading this post, I read on NPR News this: http://www.npr.org/2013/10/24/232234570/is-eastern-state-penitentiary-really-haunted?ft=1&f=1001

    The photos of the penitentiary back in its prime compliment your photos of the now. Nice post!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • I too know a thing or two about shooting old buildings. After all, Old San Juan (my back yard) is the second oldest city in the Western Hemisphere.

    I love your photography. I believe you’re using HDR. But since you don’t abuse it I can’t be quite sure. Your images simply look natural and wonderful.

    Old buildings make wonderful subjects because they allow our imagination to run free. You can only imagine what life would have been in a place like that.

    I am a fellow travel blogger from Puerto Rico. I just discovered your blog but I’m going to visit it frequently. I love it!!!

  • Well, prisons and cemeteries certainly have their appeal, don´t they? It was so interesting to read about the history behind this place, I really enjoyed going through the post. Well captured! You mentioning incarceration for the whole family made me think of Dickens´ Little Dorrit instantly..I´ve always found it fascinating how the whole family lived in the Marshalsea prison and sort of accepted somebody else´s punishment..

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