The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former American prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was operational from 1829 until 1971 and is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration ( the “Pennsylvania system”) that was first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail, emphasizing principles of reform rather than punishment. The warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day and overseers were to see each inmate three times a day to help with rehabilitation. This was a huge change from the norm at the time, where a prison usually forced inmates to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment. The solitary confinement system eventually collapsed after the prison experienced overcrowding problems. By 1913, Eastern State had officially abandoned the solitary system and operated as a congregate prison until it closed.
Notorious criminals such as Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton were held inside its walls. James Bruno (Big Joe) and several male relatives were incarcerated here between 1936 and 1948 for the alleged murders in the Kelayres Massacre of 1934, before they were pardoned.
The first thing we noticed while walking about the cells were the small doors. Some people believe that the doors were purposely made so small to make it harder for inmates to attack a guard. Others claim that the small doors made the inmates bow as they entered their cell, for religious significance. The cells all also had a single skylight, suggesting to prisoners that God was always watching them. It is truly fascinating what small design details can represent!
Cells also each had a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, which is more than I expected to see. The curved pipes along the wall served as central heating during the winter so the hot water would be run to keep the cells at a decent temperature. Toilets were remotely flushed by the guards.
When the building was completed , it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States, and quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. After closing in 1971, it took until 1994 for the prison to be opened to the public for historic tours.
Did you know?
On April 3, 1945, a major escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton), who managed to dig an undiscovered 97 foot tunnel under the prison wall. During renovations in the 1930’s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were discovered.
Take a look at how this abandoned prison looks today, as you imagine what may have been back in 1829:
The Prison Walls
Prison Wall Details
The Cells and Interior
Even Babies Can Have Fun …
It was both eerie and fascinating as we wandered around the prison, learning about what had happened between the prison walls. It had the abandoned vibes that send chills up your spine, while at the same time making your eyes wide with excitement to see what it will look like around the next corner.
We were thrilled with our CityPASS in Philadelphia, and the Eastern State Penitentiary was such a fascinating option. As soon as we saw it on the list, we knew it had to be one of the spots we made time for.
Have you ever taken a tour like this? Where?
Our visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary was sponsored by CityPASS, but as always, our opinions are our own.