Historic site in Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary

Explore Eastern State Penitentiary's history, from solitary cells to Al Capone's cell and penal reform legacy. Tours and art exhibits available.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia stands as a stark reminder of a bygone era of penal reform. Opened in 1829 with a unique wagon wheel design, this former prison introduced the concept of solitary confinement in hopes of rehabilitating inmates through contemplation. Now a historic site open to the public, visitors can explore its crumbling cellblocks and solitary confinement cells, learn about the lives of its former inmates, and discover the prison's influence on the American correctional system.

History and Architectural Design

Eastern State Penitentiary's innovative design was the brainchild of architect John Haviland. The star-shaped layout facilitated solitary confinement, believed to encourage repentance and, consequently, deter crime. In its time, it was a model for over 300 prisons worldwide. Today, visitors can still see the vaulted, sky-lit cells where inmates lived in complete isolation, allowing them to reflect on a tour of cellblocks and central surveillance hub, which was innovative for its ability to observe all wings from a single point.

Notable Inmates

The penitentiary held some well-known criminals, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone, whose lavishly decorated cell provides a stark contrast to the otherwise bare and dismal accommodations. Tours often include stories about inmates' lives and the conditions they endured. The facility served as a kind of unintentional sociological experiment, with its solitary system eventually leading to instability and mental health breakdowns in many inmates.

Guided Tours and Exhibits

Guided tours provide a deeper understanding of the prison's history, including "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. This immersive experience shares stories from former inmates and guards. "Prison Life" exhibits offer further context on daily routines, while seasonal events, like the Halloween-themed "Terror Behind the Walls," turn the foreboding structure into an elaborate haunted house with special effects and live actors.

Art Installations and Contributions

Eastern State Penitentiary also serves as a venue for art, reflective of its storied past. Installations often speak to themes of confinement and justice, engaging visitors in dialogue about the current state of the U.S. criminal justice system. The works may be viewed throughout the prison’s complex, transforming the historic site into an unconventional gallery space that provokes thought and conversation.

The Prison’s Role in Penal Reform

The institution's legacy includes its role in the evolution of penal reform. As one of the earliest large-scale applications of solitary confinement, its influence on prison design and thinking around rehabilitation vs. punishment endures in today's prison systems. The site lays bare the realities of this approach through informative displays peppered throughout the facility.

Accessibility and Visitor Information

To ensure that all visitors have access to this important cultural artifact, Eastern State Penitentiary offers amenities like wheelchair accessibility throughout most of its tours and exhibits. Detailed visitor information on opening hours, ticket prices, and event schedules is available at the site's entrance and online, making it simple for guests to plan their visit to this historical landmark.

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