Eastern State Penitentiary

Located in Philadelphia, PA US

  • Built:1822
  • Opened:1829
  • Age:192 years
  • Closed:1971
  • Demo / Renovated:N/A
  • Decaying for:43 years
  • Last Known Status:Preserved

The American prisons of the 1700s were simple and loosely organized buildings that held both unsegregated genders and prisoners convicted of a wide variety of crimes inside the same locked rooms. Their affairs were to be sorted out between themselves, and the guards role incorporated punishment consisting of abuse. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was a group of people who convened at the home of Benjamin Franklin in the late 1700s who sought to alleviate the conditions in these institutions. A member named Benjamin Rush proposed an international prison standard - a penitentiary system that would be designed to create genuine regret for the criminals housed within. After thirty years of convincing the state to build such an institution, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania finally designated a plot of farmland just outside of Philadelphia for this purpose.

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 with a Quaker inspired system of moving the prisoner toward spiritual reflection and change, rather than sole punishment, called the Separate System. The method consisted of isolating prisoners from one another at all times in single cell rooms, as well as minimalizing the interaction between guards. Hoods were placed over the prisoner's heads whenever they were outside their cells to reduce human contact, as well as to prevent distraction and knowledge of the building's layout. "Feeding doors" were used to distribute food and water, and the original cells each had a metal and a wooden door to filter out noise. Even the exercise yards were to only accommodate one prisoner at a time, and were built as small rooms with ten foot walls open to the sky. This quiet time of reflection was supposed to make the criminal think about their behavior and ugliness of their crimes, and to eventually become penitent, which coined the word "penitentiary".

Rendering of the original plan


Each cell was made of concrete and had a single skylight, and therefore the prisoner only had the light from heaven to work with, the word of God (the Bible), and honest work such as shoe making, weaving, etc, to lead them to penitence. The cells were also centrally heated, with running water and a flush toilet, which were better conditions than at the White House at the time. The thirty foot barrel vaulted ceilings of the prison were designed to reflect a church-like atmosphere, and ESP was likened to a kind of forced monestary, a machine of reform. Many officials came to Philadelphia to study the prison's architecture and methods; more than 300 prisons around the world were adopted after it's plan. Tourists also flocked to witness the prison as an architectual wonder (over 10,000 in 1858 alone), and many began to criticize the solitary confinement methods being used; most vocal were the arguments that the solitude was causing mental distress instead of helping the prisoners reform. Eventually ESP discontinued the system in 1913.

Some architectural changes were made to eliminate the old Quaker system; the doors from the cells to the single exercise yards were cemented up, and the yards themselves were replaced with additional cell blocks and other buildings as the prison expanded within it's perimeter walls. The newer cell bocks were made of reinforced concrete, and had regular windows, although the halls retained the tall ceilings and skylights typical of the older sections of Eastern State. Windowless cells and rooms built underground without lighting or plumbing became the area for solitary confinement, and were nicknamed "Klondike." Cell block 15 was the last major addition to the prison, which housed criminals on death row, and featured an electronic confinement system that separated guards from inmates at all times.

Cell Block 15 - "Death Row"

Some notable inmates include Al Capone, who served eight months in a cell much unlike any others - complete with oriental rugs, paintings, a cabinet radio, and access to the Deputy Warden's phone. Another was Willie Sutton, a man who headed an escape from Eastern State with 11 others, which consisted of a tunnel that went almost 100 feet underground. Although he successfully escaped, he was caught just minutes later. Over the course of his life, he has pulled over 50 bank robberies, 3 successful escapes from prison, and over 30 years behind bars. In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly gave a life sentence to a dog named Pep, which supposedly killed his wife's cherished cat. Although the newspapers reported the governor gave his dog to the prison to increase morale, the dog was assigned an inmate number and had a mug shot on file.

In the late 1960s, the prison was in need of major architectural and electrical repairs, and Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in January of 1970. It was briefly used to hold prisoners from nearby Holmesburg Prison following a riot there in 1971. Afterwards, it was left completely abandoned until stabilization and preservation efforts began in 1991. Now, it has become a historic landmark and public museum that can be visited today due to the efforts of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc. Exhibits and installations from various artists can be seen throughout this preserved ruin, and the organization offers many events throughout the year - the most popular being "Terror Behind the Walls" during the Halloween season. For more information about current events as well as loads of history on ESP, visit easternstate.org.