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A Virtual Tour of Eastern State Penitentiary - Part 1

Updated on September 13, 2015


In 1829, when Eastern State Penitentiary was first opened, it was the largest and most expensive building in the United States. Influenced by Quakers, it was the physical manifestation of the social reform theory that criminals should be rehabilitated through solitary confinement. Inmates were intended to become penitent through religious instruction and hard labor, hence the name "penitentiary".

The penitentiary was controversial and costly to run. So, after 84 years of running, the practice of solitary confinement at Eastern State was abandoned in 1913 due to overcrowding, financial strain, and the harmful psychological effects suffered by the inmates. From 1913 to 1971, Eastern State became a congregate prison with multiple inmates being assigned to one cell. The prison was closed in 1971. Today, Eastern State Penitentiary occupies 11 acres of Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood.

Imposing View of Eastern State from the Outside
Imposing View of Eastern State from the Outside | Source

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary occupies 11 acres of Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood.

Eastern State Penitentiary - Located in Philadelphia's Fairmount Neighborhood

A New Kind of Prison

Until the late 1700s, criminals were held together in one large room in prisons to await their trial and punishment. Men, women, and children were all housed together with no separation or privacy. This led to overcrowding and excessively unsanitary conditions.

In 1821, The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons convinced the State of Pennsylvania to build EasternState in an attempt to create a more humane prison environment which could eventually become a model for other prisons. Their belief was that isolation, hard labor, and religious instruction would transform criminals into better citizens and convince them to turn away from crime. They also believed that the fear of isolation would deter future crime.

Construction of EasternState began in 1822 and the first inmate was admitted in 1829. When it was completed in 1836, it cost $780,000, which made it the most expensive building of its day.

A Note to Visitors

• The city of Philadelphia requires that visitors wear hard hats at all times and remain within designated areas.

• Smoking is not permitted anywhere on the property.

Administration Building

Eastern State's Administration Building contained offices and even apartments for the warden and his family. Built on a hill, close to downtown Philadelphia, it was meant to resemble a gloomy, intimidating fortress in order to deter any of the city's citizens from committing crimes. Surely no one could disagree that the dark, Gothic architecture of the prison and its 30 feet high, 8 feet thick walls were indeed terrifying!

In the mid-1800s, Eastern State Penitentiary was a popular place for tourists to visit. Up to 200 visited the prison every day. Most visitors were local Philadelphia residents, but the prison also attracted tourists from all over the world including Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville.


John Haviland, Eastern State's designer, originally designed the south tower to contain rooms for guards to live. By the 1920s, the prison had been converted to a congregate prison which was greater cause for security. So, the guards' rooms were converted to sentry boxes equipped with repeating rifles and machine guns to allow the guards to keep watch on many prisoners at once from a safe vantage point.

Cell Block 1

Cell Block 1 was the first cell block to be completed in 1829. Charles Williams, who was convicted of theft, was its first inmate.

Inside Cell Block 1 - Eastern State Penitentiary

Cell Block 2

Cell Block 2 was the second cell block to be completed. It originally housed women, but in 1923 all women were transferred to the new women's prison in Muncie, Indiana. After this, Cell Block 2 became known as the "old timer's block".

Each cell has two doors, an inner and an outer. The inner iron gate kept the inmate from seeing through the small hole in the heavy wooden outer door, but still allowed the guards to see in and observe the prisoner. Each cell had its own toilet and running water. Each cell had a connecting private exercise yard which was the same size as the cell (8'x12'). Inmates were given two half-hour periods of exercise per day, but otherwise spent their days working. They could also practice trades like weaving, leather-working and carpentry.

Quite extreme measures were taken to ensure prisoners were in complete solitude. The walls between cells were two feet thick which made talking between prisoners nearly impossible. Heating pipes were built outside of the cell walls so that communication by tapping on pipes was not possible. Social contact between guards and prisoners was not allowed. Prisoners were only permitted to send and receive one letter per year and could only receive occasional visits from church officials - other visitors were not permitted. Even the way the cell blocks were designed, with high, vaulted ceilings that amplified noise, encouraged inmates to remain silent. Even whistling and singing were prohibited.

Inmates were required to wear hoods when outside their cells. In the early decades, the hood had no eye holes. The hoods were considered a kindness for inmates. They prevented recognition by other inmates after the prisoner's release.

Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn;

— Charles Dickens

Central Rotunda

The Central Rotunda connects all seven original cell blocks of Eastern State like the central hub of a wheel. This circular, wheel-like design allowed guards to see down each cell block easily from one, central location. However, as time went on and the prison became more and more overcrowded, additional cell blocks were built and Cell Blocks 4, 5, 6, and 7 were given a second story.

View from Central Rotunda

View down a corridor from the Central Rotunda
View down a corridor from the Central Rotunda | Source

Central Guard Tower

The Central Guard Tower is visible through the skylight of the Central Rotunda. From the CentralGuardTower, all of EasternState could be viewed. With solitary confinement coming to an end, inmates freely walking around the prison became a security concern for guards. The tower was built in the 1950s to give guards a better view of the entire prison grounds.

Cell Block 11

Cell Block 11 was built in 1894 in between Cell Block 2 and 3. Since Cell Block 11 was not part of Haviland's original plan of central surveillance, it is not possible to see directly down the cell block from the Central Rotunda. Therefore, surveillance mirrors were installed to help guards see down the corridor.

Stay Tuned for Part 2!

Part 2 of the virtual tour will be coming soon!


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