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Philadelphia's Historic Eastern State Penitentiary

Updated on November 24, 2017
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Chris enjoys photographing the places he visits. He shares these photos as travel articles and also mixes them with creative writing.

Entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, USA | Source

Eastern State Penitentiary, a Great Place to Visit in Philadelphia

Of all the historic places to visit in the city of Philadelphia, it might seem strange that I am suggesting a prison. A tour of historic Eastern State Penitentiary is just that awesome. I'm working temporarily in Philadelphia and have lots of time to get around and see the sites in this city that features Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Congress Hall, Carpenters Hall and world class museum after world class museum. When I first heard about Eastern State Penitentiary and saw photos, I knew I had to grab my camera and go.

If you are visiting Philadelphia in the fall, you might have the opportunity to go over to the prison for their annual haunted house. For Halloween 2013, Forbes rated Philadelphia's "Terror Behind the Walls" at Eastern State Penitentiary in its top ten haunted house attractions in the country. The event runs from late September through early November. Check the website for specific dates. Prices are much better online than at the door.

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in central Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Fairmount Street between 22nd Street and Corinthian Avenue in the Fairmount section. When it was originally built in 1829, the prison was outside the city, surrounded by farm land. Today Eastern State Penitentiary is in the very heart of the fifth largest urban agglomeration in the United States.

Halloween at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary on Halloween

(From ESP website)

"Terror Behind the Walls" Haunted House

A massive haunted house in a real prison! Called “One of America’s Scariest Halloween Attractions” by The Travel Channel and consistently ranked among the top 10 haunted attractions in the country. All proceeds benefit historic preservation at this National Historic Landmark.

The Front Tower of Eastern State Penitentiary

A view of the front tower from inside the prison walls.  Employees of the prison and their families lived in the tower.
A view of the front tower from inside the prison walls. Employees of the prison and their families lived in the tower. | Source

The founders of Eastern State Penitentiary were Enlightenment thinkers. They were convinced that the conventional method of locking criminals up in common holding pens and punishing them for their unlawful behavior was the wrong way of handling the problem. They believed that the criminal could be reformed, could be made sorry for his crimes by means of isolating him with only the memory of his misconduct to keep him company.

Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

This ordinary cell at Eastern State Penitentiary exemplifies the isolation of prisoners during the Separate System days.
This ordinary cell at Eastern State Penitentiary exemplifies the isolation of prisoners during the Separate System days. | Source

Music Videos and Films Shot at Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the Living, 1985 with Tina Turner (Music Video)

Punk Rock Girl, The Dead Milkmen 1988 (Music Video)

12 Monkeys, 1995 with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (Film)

Return to Paradise, 1998 with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche (Film)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009 with Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. (Film)

Crazy, 2010 Whitney Peyton (Music Video)

Two Tiered Cell Block at Eastern State Penitentiary

Source

Directions to Eastern State Penitentiary

A
eastern state penitentiary, philadelphia, pa:
Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA

get directions

Cell Door

Isolation of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary was extreme.  There was not even a small window for the doors to these particular cells.
Isolation of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary was extreme. There was not even a small window for the doors to these particular cells. | Source

Prison Management and Prisoner Reform at Eastern State Penitentiary

The founders of Eastern State Penitentiary developed a plan for prison management and prisoner reform which became know as the Pennsylvania System or the Separate System. The Separate System of prison management can be described in three steps.

  1. The concept of isolation-According to the plan of the founders, prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary would be absolutely isolated from one another. They had individual exercise yards and when taken from their cells wore eyeless hoods. Guards were not permitted to talk to the prisoners and knew neither their names nor personal, criminal histories. Originally, the cells did not have doorways connecting to the interior hallway. They had only small windows through which meals were passed three times a day.
  2. The purpose of isolation-The powerful individuals in Philadelphia who embraced the separate system, intended to use it as a means of reforming, not punishing the prisoners. These founders felt that if a person was forced to endure total isolation with the memories of their own criminal behavior, in time they would actually become sorry, or penitent. This was the origin of the word, penitentiary.
  3. The physical structure that would provide and promote isolation-Eastern State Penitentiary sits on 14 acres and resembles a wagon wheel, with the hub being a central observation area and long, narrow cell blocks as spokes radiating outward. A guard could stand in the center of the observation room and by slowly rotating see the full length of each cell block. In keeping with the goal of isolating the prisoners, the fronts of the cells originally had no doors, but only small holes through which food was passed. The unique design of Eastern State Penitentiary has been, and continues to be copied around the world. Over three hundred prisons owe their basic design to Eastern State Penitentiary.

Thumbnail Birdseye views of Eastern State Penitentiary

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA | Source
Source

Tips for Your Visit to Eastern State Penitentiary

Clothing
Photography
After the tour
In the winter there is no heat in the prison.
Low light in nearly every area
Parts of the prison are open to visit without being on a tour
Hats
Natural lighting only
Go back to the open areas after your tour
Gloves
Wide angle lens would be helpful in many places
Wander at your own pace
Warm shoes or boots
 
Better photo opportunities with fewer people
Layer with sweater/medium weight coat
 
 

Early History of Eastern State Penitentiary

Founding members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.  Shown are Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Bishop William White.  (Photo of display at ESP).
Founding members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Shown are Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Bishop William White. (Photo of display at ESP). | Source

Opposing Viewpoints on the Job Eastern State Penitentiary Was Doing

From a report by two French officials to their own government. “Thrown into solitude... [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.... Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness.." Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Charles Dickens, 1842: In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,... and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Video on the Willie Sutton Tunnel Escape of 1945

Prisoners on the Loose

In the spring of 1944, cellmates Clarence Klinedinst and William Russell began work on a tunnel originating in their cell. Klinedinst was a plasterer and was working for the prison to repair damaged walls in one of the cells. The two men actually lived in the cell being repaired.

The two prisoners made a small, hidden panel in the wall where they were working and spent the next year constructing a tunnel behind it. They dug down fifteen feet, then horizontally for 97 feet and up 15 feet on the outside of the wall. During the early morning hours of April 3, 1945, Clarence Klinedinst broke through the ground at the corner of 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue.

He returned to the cell to get William Russell who convinced Klinedinst to wait till later in the morning. They waited and were joined by ten other inmates who were on their way to breakfast. One of these was famous bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton.

The twelve men crawled through the tunnel, crossing an underground stream and surfaced covered with mud. They scattered into the surrounding neighborhood, but most were caught that same day. Willie Sutton was apprehended fifteen minutes and two blocks from the prison.

One escapee was out for eight days but returned to East State Penitentiary on the morning of April 11 and knocked on the gate. He wanted back in because he was hungry. Two others were arrested in New York City three months later. “Slick” Willie Sutton took credit for being in charge of the design and construction of the tunnel, while Clarence Klinedinst remained silent on the subject.

Other Prisoner Escapes From Eastern State Penitentiary

Throughout the one hundred forty-two year history of Eastern State Penitentiary, more than one hundred prisoners managed to escape.

The first person to escape was William Hamilton who, in 1832, managed to descend the wall from the warden’s quarters.

Six inmates scaled the wall in 1923. One of the six, Leo Callahan, was never recaptured.

Miscellaneous Thumbnail Photos of Eastern State Penitentiary

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Cell blockCell blockTwo tiered cell blockEarly parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler. Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Cell block
Cell block
Cell block | Source
Cell block
Cell block | Source
Two tiered cell block
Two tiered cell block | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler.
Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Cell block
Cell block | Source

Eastern State Penitentiary, c.1830

Photograph of a painting on display at ESP.   Painting portrays the prison as it appeared around 1830.
Photograph of a painting on display at ESP. Painting portrays the prison as it appeared around 1830. | Source

Famous Prisoner, Al Capone

Photo of display of Al Capone's prison Photo.  c.1929
Photo of display of Al Capone's prison Photo. c.1929 | Source
Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. | Source

High Points of the History of Eastern State Penitentiary

  • 1787- The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in the home of Benjamin Franklin. They discussed both the theory of reforming criminals and the design of the ideal prison.
  • 1829-Eastern State Penitentiary opened, becoming one of the most expensive buildings in the United States at the time and the most famous prison in the world.
  • 1830s-1840s-Tourists flock to Philadelphia to see the architectural wonder that was Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • 1842-Charles Dickens visited the prison and criticized the practice of isolating prisoners from one another, from guards and from the outside world as an official means of reforming criminals. This method had become known as the Pennsylvania System of prison management or the Separate System.
  • 1840s-1913-The Separate System of prisoner reform slowly eroded.
  • 1870s and 1890s-Cell blocks were added which did not include individual exercise yards. Prisoners in the new cell blocks would exercise together wearing hoods with eye holes.
  • 1905-A workshop was added which allowed prisoners to work on projects in the presence of other prisoners and guards.1909-the inmate operated newspaper known as The Umpire, published a regular roster of scores for the inter-penitentiary baseball league.
  • 1929-Al Capone was arrested for the first time and spent nearly a year in Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • 1945-American bank robber, Willie Sutton, joined eleven other inmates in an attempted escape. Sutton was recaptured within fifteen minutes.
  • 1956-The last major construction project at the prison was the building of Cell Block 15, Death Row.
  • 1960s-Age took its toll on the prison, requiring costly repairs.
  • 1971-Eastern State Penitentiary closed after 142 years of continuous operation.
  • 1980-The city of Philadelphia purchased the penitentiary with the goal of redeveloping the site.
  • 1988-Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned the City to halt redevelopment efforts.
  • 1994-First interpretative guided tours offered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
  • 1997-Pennsylvania Prison Society signed 20 year agreement with the City to operate the site.
  • 2001-The agreement was taken over by the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.
  • Today-The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. continues to offer guided public tours every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day.

Exterior Wall and Guardhouse

Exterior wall and guard tower
Exterior wall and guard tower | Source

Silent Film Portraying Eastern State Penitentiary, 1929.

A Great Place to Visit in Philadelphia

Whether you are interested in architecture, the history of prisons, or just want a good scare, A tour of Eastern State Penitentiary is a very satisfying and educational experience.

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