Eastern State Penitentiary
Last week I wrote about our favorite things to see and do in Philly. But there was one place in particular where I took so many photos that it deserves a post all to its own.
If you guys know me, you know I am a fan of all things spooky, ghosty, creepy, paranormaly… :) I used to love the show Ghost Hunters. I have wanted to go to Eastern State Penitentiary ever since I saw it on the show.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison in Philadelphia. It was operational from 1829 until 1971. It’s considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary and is known for its revolutionary system of incarceration.
Previously at incarceration facilities in America, prisoners shared cells, were forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment.
Eastern State was designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the prisoner. Spiritual reflection and reform was emphasized rather than punishment.
Each prisoner was held in solitary confinement. Entrances to the cells were small metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise, so the the prisoners couldn’t communicate with each other. Some believe the small doors were designed to force the prisoners to bow when entering their cell.
The halls of the cellblock were also designed to have the feel of a church.
However, when a prisoner left his cell, the accompanying guard would wrap a hood over his head to prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, or interaction with the guards.
Each cell had its own small, private exercise yard attached, enclosed by thick, 10-foot high walls so prisoners could not communicate with each other. Exercise time was synchronized so that no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time. However, the prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards.
Cell accommodations were surprisingly advanced for their time. Eastern States’s earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. Cells were centrally heated and equipped with running water, a flushable toilet, and a skylight. This was during a time when the White House (and its current president, Andrew Jackson) had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.
A notable inmate of Eastern State is infamous gangster Al Capone.
In 1929 he spent 8 months in this cell. The Philadelphia Daily Ledger reported that Capone enjoyed many luxuries during his stay.
Reportedly his cell was furnished with large oriental rugs, oil paintings, and a radio.
In 1959 a new cellblock opened as the maximum security block. It became known as “Death Row”. A row of bars was installed in the center of the hall to prevent contact between the inmates and guards.
The remains of the barber shop. The barber shop was equipped with fluorescent lights, outlets, mirrors, and barber chairs. Inmates were trained to be barbers and were issued straight razors for shaving the other prisoners. The razors were signed out by the guard on duty.
A shower room at Eastern State. The prisoners shared one large shower.
This summer there is an interesting new art installation inside one of the former cells at Eastern State. This metal cage is an exact recreation of a cell from Camp X-Ray, the former holding cells at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
By placing the Guantanamo Bay cell inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell, the artist William Cromar illustrates opposite means to a similar end. The Eastern State cells are larger, opaque, and stone, where the Guantanamo Bay cages are smaller and nearly transparent.
If you’ve got a free hour or two, I highly recommend visiting Eastern State Penitentiary. It’s centrally located in the heart of Philadelphia and very easy to get to. It’s open 7 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. The audio tour takes around 45 minutes and is narrated by Steve Buscemi.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out our other favorite things to do in Philadelphia.