Eastern State Penitentiary

It’s a little creepy but immensely fascinating at the same time. Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is an extraordinary place to visit. Construction began in 1822 on Eastern State, which became the world’s first true penitentiary. 

Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Block 5

The creators of this historic prison had good intentions. The intent was to provide inmates the opportunity to be penitent or remorseful. Then, they would return to be productive members of society after a short stay of 2 to 3 years. 

Eastern State Penitentiary stairs in a cell block

At the time of construction, Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the most costly structures in the US. In addition, it was quite modern with heat and running water even before the White House.

Eastern State Penitentiary turret

Eastern State was built with a central hub and seven cell blocks radiating from the center for easy surveillance. However, the prison filled quickly, and more cell blocks were added later.

Eastern State Penitentiary Central Hub

Prisoners were to be housed in solitary confinement at all times. They would have no contact with their fellow inmates and remain anonymous. This method was called the Pennslyvania System. 

Eastern State Penitentiary window in a cell

In the early years of ESP, prisoners ate, worked, and slept in their cells. On the rare occasion when they left their cells, inmates wore hoods. The idea was that once their incarceration was over, they were less likely to be recognized. Thus, former prisoners would have a better chance to live productive lives.

Cell block with cells on either side and bench in the center

Later it became clear that solitary confinement wasn’t exactly mentally healthy. In fact, Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842 and wrote that he believed it to be “cruel and wrong.” By 1913, Eastern State Penitentiary officially eliminated the practice of widespread solitary confinement.

2 story cell block

Prisoner number 1 arrived in 1829, and the last prisoner left in 1971. Throughout the years, ESP housed both men and women as well as infamous inmates such as Al Capone (before his days at Alcatraz).

Recreation of Al Capone's cell
Recreation of Al Capone’s Cell

Eastern State Penitentiary Tours

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, a non-profit, operates the site and offers tours and special programming. Both day and night tours are available. 

Eastern State Penitentiary view from the 2nd floor cell block

We chose to take a guided tour of ESP during the day. Audio tours, as well as night tours, are also available.

Door to cell block 6

The guided tour lasted about 75 minutes. We were also given the audio tour with an option to continue to explore after the guided tour ends.

Cells along a cooridor

You can see Eastern State Penitentiary in as little as an hour and a half. Or, if you prefer, spend a half-day or more exploring all of the exhibits.

Front tower of Eastern State Penitentiary

ESP is a fantastic place to visit, and I hope to return someday. If you’ve ever toured Alcatraz or one of the other historic prisons in the country and enjoyed it, you’ll absolutely love Eastern State Penitentiary.

Entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary
Front Entrance

Traveling to Philadelphia? Check out Philadelphia Fun: 21 Things to Do in the City of Brotherly Love.

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