The Dark Past of the Eastern State Penitentiary

The Eastern State Penitentiary takes you back over 50 years to Philly’s darker times.

We’ve been to plenty of prison destinations on our travels. Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Colditz, Kilmainham and the old Melbourne Gaol to name a few, but the Eastern State is one of the best preserved and impressive for both its scale and innovative use of the space.

Beyond the walls

Built in 1829, on Fairmount Street in a well-to-do neighborhood, the prison was strategically designed to make its subjects penitent – robbing them of human interaction, casting them into spartan cells with minimal natural light and leaving them to dwell on their crimes. The dark stone and imposing turrets make it look like a crusader-era castle with thick impenetrable walls.

The model prison

Within, the prison is spread out like a wagon wheel with each cell block branching out like a spoke from a central hub. In its glory days, it was a temporary home to the world’s most notorious mobster, Al Capone who served nine months in the relative luxury of a cell with Persian carpets and a gramophone and radiogram. Capone and his bodyguard were arrested for having loaded unregistered hand guns when pulled over by the police. The other notable former prisoner is bank robber, Willie Sutton.

The center of the hub where blocks branch out like spokes
While quite stylish, the mirrors were for monitoring prisoners

Operating up until 1971, the prison at its peak was the largest and most expensive public structure in the USA and its innovative design served as the model for prisons around the world. Rather than offering a window, each cell had a small skylight with indirect light through an opaque roof plate, so they never saw the blue sky within the cell.

The Eye of God

This skylight was “the eye of god” looking down on the prisoner and each cell had a soundproof door and a low doorway so the prisoner had to crouch or bow when being let out.

Rather than creating a barren visitors experience, most of the cells have rubble and rusted bed frames and original mattresses left in place that makes for awesome photos. It’s haunting and the accompanying audio tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi features the voices and recollections of former guards and inmates

Escapes

On April 3, 1945, eight prisoners including Willie Sutton successfully tunneled out under the walls. We weren’t able to see the cell where it happened but apparently over the course of extensive renovations over 30 tunnel attempts have been found.

For the early era, prisoners never mixed – this changed with the opening of the exercise yard

Now a hub for artists

Renowned as one of the most haunted places in Philly, the prison has also been the backdrop for album covers, music videos and films. Today some of its cells are being utilized as art installations, with auditory, photographic and other experimental and Avant-garde pieces as well as a reconstructed Guantanamo Bay cell and a SUV rebuilt inside the tiny space.

One of many cells now used as a unique canvas for art installations

We found the Eastern State Penitentiary to be one of the true highlights of our Philadelphia explorations.

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What?

Eastern State Penitentiary is a perfectly preserved prison dating back over 100 years.

Where?

2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130

How?

The prison is open from 10am to 5pm daily.

Entry costs: $14 for adults and you’ll save $2 if you book ahead online.

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theroamingirishman
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theroamingirishman

Great post guys!!! I have great memories of visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary about 10 years ago. It was a great learning experience and this posts brings it all back.

Adam @ http://www.roamingirishman.com

jasonlikestotravel
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jasonlikestotravel

Looks like an incredible place to explore. Definitely putting this on my list to visit whenever I visit Philly 🙂