Eastern State Penitentiary

John Haviland, a notable 19th century Philadelphia architect, was commissioned to design Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. The austere exterior of the grey stone building on Fairmount Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street seems out of place in a neighborhood of parks, museums, and schools of art and design. However, Haviland’s plan for the interior was quite innovative and modern in comparison to other prisons. The radial design featured a central surveillance rotunda, with 30’ vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and seven cellblocks extending from the center. Each cell was heated, with running water, a flushing toilet, and a skylight. Cell occupants had their own private exercise yard surrounded by a ten-foot wall, and were required to wear hoods or masks when leaving their cells. Here, in complete silence and isolation, the prisoner occupied himself with reading the Bible, weaving, or shoe making, while doing penance for his crime. This was in keeping with the Quaker philosophy of true penitence, and the word penitentiary is, in fact, derived from this system of confinement. The Pennsylvania system of reform was new and controversial, being in direct opposition to the New York Auburn system of inmates living and working together. Although it effectively eliminated much of the public physical punishment of criminals in colonial times, the effects of solitary confinement more than likely contributed to a greater degree of mental illness.

From the time of the first prisoner, Charles Williams, until 1926, the inmate population had increased to over 1700 in a prison designed for less than 300 occupants. Gangster Al Capone spent a year here in 1929 in a cell he personally furnished with antiques, rugs, and oil paintings. In 1945, the infamous bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton dug a 97’ tunnel, and with 12 other inmates, escaped from the prison to continue a life of crime on the outside until his death in 1980. Overall, it is estimated that more than 100 prison escapes were attempted, and all but a very few were captured. The penitentiary was a tourist destination even then, with visits by prominent citizens such as Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, who was impressed with the system of reform and its effectiveness, and Charles Dickens in 1842, who criticized and opposed the system for its severity.

Overcrowding resulted in abandoning the idea of separate cells and by 1913, cohabitation of prisoners was established and the Pennsylvania prison system of reform was abolished. Eastern State was officially closed in 1970, except for a brief period in 1971 when it was used as a holding place for inmates brought in from a riot staged at Holmesburg prison. The prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, and although redevelopment of Eastern State was considered, it never materialized. Instead, it opened to the public in 1994 for historic tours, and today, it serves as a grim reminder of notorious criminals and the reality of crime and punishment. It is a place of empty cells and guard towers, a place where Hollywood has capitalized on the public’s lurid fascination and curiosity with the darker side of history. Shocking tales of horror and insanity have been filmed and brought to life within the prison walls including SciFi’s Ghost Hunters and the movie Twelve Monkeys. In June of 2007, the Travel channel will broadcast Most Haunted Live, a British show focusing on the paranormal. Along with ghostly visual and sound effects, the company hopes to reach beyond to the supernatural from this location.

Regularly scheduled events held at the prison each year include Bastille Day, a humorous staging of the storming of Bastille Prison, Terror Behind the Walls, a Halloween haunted house, and the 4th of July Independence Day celebration. Tourists can view American classic movies such as The Untouchables, and former inmates and prison staff may be interested in attending their alumni reunion, although this seems like a strange sort of celebration. The changing series of art exhibits and installations are main attractions for many visitors. One of the most interesting of these is the Janet Cardiff & George Miller two-story installation of Pandemonium. A visit to Pandemonium is exactly what its name implies. Rather than an eerie silence, one is bombarded with sound from every direction, the sounds of the tormented and the tormentors. Thirty-nine sculptures of cats by Linda Brenner represent those that moved into the prison after its closure, and hundreds of feet of steel pipes, built by Dayton Castleman, outline the tunnels and paths used by prison escapees.

Eastern State Penitentiary, a first in state prisons in the U.S., is considered an endangered cultural historic site; it is on the World Monuments Fund list as one of 100 sites in need of funding and community support for their preservation.

Hours: April 1 — November 30, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., last entry at 4:00 p.m. Summer extended hours: June – August, Wednesdays until 8:00 p.m., last entry at 7:00 p.m. Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, and December through March. Ph: 215-236-3300.
Admission: Adults, $9.00, Seniors & Students, $7.00, Children 7-12, $4.00. No children under age 7.
Tours: Audio presentation with voices of former inmates, staff, and historians. Includes Surveillance Hub, Al Capone’s cell, solitary confinement exercise yards, and Death Row (cellblock 15). Daily 30-minute interactive tours, included in admission.
Parking: On street and lot next to the prison, $4.00 up to 2 hours, over 2 hours – $5.00.
Partially handicap accessible. Outdoor seating available for visitors bringing lunch.

(Note: Visitors to this “preserved ruin” are asked to sign personal liability waivers, due to its deteriorating condition.)

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