I know a lot of you commented and expressed interest in seeing photos from my visit to Eastern State Penitentiary. Here they are, along with a history lesson.
I’m not sure where my fascination with touring abandoned prisons comes from. Perhaps it’s from my criminology studies or all of the organized crime films I’ve seen. Whatever the reason, I think touring a place like this is more memorable than walking through a museum and seeing artifacts (don’t get me wrong, I like that, too).
But Eastern State is more than that. This empty and decaying prison attacks every one of your senses once you step inside. From crumbling cells to chairs that look like they are straight from a horror movie, there is an eerie stillness that resides within the prison. It’s hard to believe that such an impressive structure sits amongst houses and cafés in a residential area of Philadelphia. But this stone fortress has quite a past. From a notorious gangster inmate to a notable escape attempt, Eastern State boasts a rich history.
Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was the first of its kind both in structure and reform. A far cry from what was commonly used to hold criminals in those days, this prison had a mission that through isolation prisoners would atone for their crimes — having only their thoughts and honest labor to occupy their time. In this sense, it was a true “penitentiary,” where inmates would do penance for their crimes.
From the outside, the menacing ten-foot wall served as a deterrent to the would-be escapee. Still, people tried. During Eastern’s tenure as a prison only about 100 inmates managed to escape. All but one avoided recapture. The inside of the prison, consisting of seven cell blocks — centered around a surveillance rotunda — created an intricate labyrinth intended to disorient the prisoner.
During the early days at Eastern State, prisoners consisted of robbers, burglars, horse thieves, and murderers. As a way to keep order, prisoners were often hooded anytime they were outside of their cells. This tactic prevented the prisoners from ever getting a lay of the land, reducing the likelihood that they would try to escape.
Cells were small, centrally heated, and consisted of running water and a flush toilet. The only source of natural light came from a skylight. It’s interesting to note that during the time Eastern was constructed, the White House had no running water and relied on a coal-burning stove for heat. One could argue the inmates had more amenities than President Andrew Jackson.
Over the years, a debate brewed as to the benefits of keeping prisoners in such relative isolation. As the prison expanded in the 1950’s to include a wing for death row inmates, the original ideals of inmate reform took a back seat. Cells became more modernized, inmates had more privileges, and the initial premise of Eastern State was slowly fading.
By the 1960’s the crumbling prison needed repairs and by 1971 the prison was closed for good. There were talks that the land would be sold for condominiums, but criminologists believed that the prison should be preserved. It is currently a “stabilized ruin” and there are no plans to fix it up.
During the tour, my mind constantly wandered to what the prison must have looked like when it was operational. Two images were especially haunting. One was where they put prisoners in solitary confinement — an area that resembled a crawl space. The other was a chair that I referred to as a torture chair before I actually knew what it was. A quick Google search proved that I was close. The sinister looking red chair (seen above) was called the “Mad Chair,” where prisoners who went mad before their sentence ended would be strapped down. Unable to move, they would stay there without food or water until the circulation in their body almost stopped from inactivity.
Taking the audio tour while viewing the prison proved highly informative. Narrated by the actor, Steve Buscemi, the audio tour featured stories told by former inmates and families of inmates, as well as former guards and experts in criminology. Make sure you leave time for the audio tour. It is self-guided, but there are lots of stops along the way. You can easily lose your place among all of the identical looking cell blocks, so try to make a note of which blocks you’ve seen (or you could be there all day).
One of the highlights of the tour is the cell where Al Capone served his one-year sentence in 1929 at Eastern State (prior to his stint at Alcatraz). In comparison to the other cells, Capone was allowed to furnish his with paintings, rugs, and antiques. Recent research indicates that that this portrait of the lap of luxury might be exaggerated.
Other notable highlights include the tunnel that Willie Sutton constructed in 1945 so that he and 11 other inmates could escape.
Walking around Eastern State, you’ll be struck by the cold temperature in the cell blocks. When I visited, it was a breezy spring day, but I could have used an extra layer. Prisoners often complained that Eastern State was cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
If you’re planning a visit to Philadelphia, and have any interest in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system, then Eastern State Penitentiary is a worthwhile stop!