Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary


Location: 2027 Fairmount Ave, Fairmount, Philadelphia, PA   Map

Area: 11 acres (45,000 m2)

Constructed: 1829

Closed: 1971


Description of the Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in United States.  Eastern State Penitentiary covers an area of 11 acres (45,000 m2) and was constructed in 1829 under supervision of the architect John Haviland who designed this prison in a Gothic architectural style. The outside wall and its towers look like a medieval European castle. The prison structure inside had a central round tower with seven blocks that radiate in all directions. It is one of the oldest prison in United States. Its design and construction was inspired by a branch of Christianity, known as Quakers. They believed that the best and only way to cure a criminals and outlaws is by providing them with environment that will help them to found God. Quakers believed that compassion must replace the torture and violence of the punishments of the past. They hoped to help people repent for their sins rather than pay for them. In order to achieve that they created a whole vision of a humane penitentiary system.

In the early 19th century these ideas materialized in a prison with seven blocks that contained rows of solitary cells. Each cell had a door that closed rooms shut. On the inside it was made of iron, on the other side it was made of wood. Prisoners could not talk and communicate with each other. They were not even suppose to see each other. The idea that that one rotten apple could damage others were quiet strong. Inmates were supposed to look inside themselves and find peace with the Lord. Other people could harm this process. Even when the inmate would leave his room he had to put a special mask on his face so that no one could see each other. Unfortunately designers of the prison didn't take in consideration that many people went crazy when they were left by themselves in a concrete bag. Their only source of light was a skylight in the roof that became known as "The Eye of God". Some might have turned to Lord, but many more had less positive outcome. Interestingly the prison was also a famous tourist destination in the 19th century. People who ran it considered this structure as a breakthrough in treatment of criminals. They invited many famous people to take a look at a future of all penitentiary system or so they though. Famous visitors included Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens who described prisoners as "buried alive".

Eastern State Penitentiary served as an example for over 300 other prisons that were constructed across the country. However by the early 20th century it became clear that the theory was a flawed one and simply didn't work in reality. In 1913 the prison abandoned its solitary system and instead it was turned into a regular prison where people could see each other and freely communicate. It was eventually closed in 1971.


Famous Inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary

Al Capone

Eastern State Penitentiary Famous Chicago gangster Al Capone spent eight months here for being caught with a concealed weapon. He was placed at the solitary confinement, but unlike other inmates his room was more comfortable than others. He was allowed to bring items, furniture and books that others could not take. Prisoners guards had a fairly good relationship with a famous head of mobsters. However during nights Al Capone was haunted by his victims. Tortured by his past he used to scream. Several witnesses claimed that the most famous ghost that haunted him was that of James "Jimmy" Clark also known as Albert Kachellek. He was one of the victims of the famous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre that occurred on February 14th, 1929.



James Clark aka Albert Kachellek

Willie "The Actor" Sutton (1901- 80)

Willie "The Actor" Sutton or simply "Slick Willie" was a famous bank robber. He became famous for his failed attempt to escape from the Eastern State Penitentiary. He dug a tunnel with his accomplices and made it to the sidewalk outside of prison. Unfortunately for him his plan was foiled and he was returned to Eastern State.


Punishment in Eastern State Penitentiary

Mad Chair

Eastern State Penitentiary was famous for its cruel treatment of inmates who broke the rules of the prison. Most commonly people were punished for attempting to contact other prisoners. Desperate for any human contact they knocked on walls, pipes, tried to pass notes to each other. One of the worse tortures was striping the man to the so called Mad Chair. A prisoner would be strapped into the chair with leather strips. It was so tight that blood circulation significantly decreased. Unfortunate victim couldn't move for hours. In order to make the condition even worse for the person prison guards would not feed the person or provide any water. Many people would go mad by the time their punishment would end. Hence the chair got its name of a Mad Chair.

Iron Gag

Another way to stop any communication between the patients was an Iron Gag. An iron collar was clamed onto a man's tongue. This collar was connected to the wrists of an inmate that in turn were strapped behind his back. Any movement would cause incredible pain and leave deep lacerations in the tongue. Many prisoners died from loss of blood before their punishment came to an end.

The Water Bath

The Water bath was one of the worst punishment in the prison. It consisted of dunking a person in an ice cold water. The inmate then was chained to the wall and left in this condition overnight. Their skin would be covered by ice by the next morning. Many died of complications after such cruel treatment.



The Eastern State Penitentiary, designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, is considered the first true penitentiary in the world. The revolutionary penitentiary system in the eastern state, called the "Pennsylvania system" or the segregated system, encouraged solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation. By law, a warden was required to visit each prisoner daily, and guards were required to see each prisoner three times a day.

At the same time, an alternative to the Pennsylvania system was the Auburn system (also known as the New York system), which believed that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence and could be subjected to physical punishment (such as Sing-Sing prison). Although the Auburn system was preferred in the United States, Eastern State's radial floor plan and solitary confinement system served as a model for more than 300 prisons around the world.

The critic and activist John Neale in 1841 expressed his disgust at the international reputation of "a nation which, only fifty or sixty years ago, had broken free from all its fetters, overthrown prisons, palaces, and thrones, in its march to universal emancipation, already known throughout the earth for its prisons, its chains, and its signs of slavery."

At first the prisoners were housed in cells accessible only through a small yard attached to the rear of the prison; only a small portal, large enough to transfer food, opened to the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and cells were built during construction that allowed prisoners to enter and exit the cell blocks through metal doors that were closed with heavy wooden doors to filter noise. The halls were designed to feel like a church.

Some believe the door was small, making it harder for inmates to get out, minimizing the assault on the officer. Others explained that the small door forced prisoners to bow when entering the cell. This design is associated with penance and a connection to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass window representing the "Eye of God", hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching over them.

Outside the cell was a separate exercise area surrounded by high walls to prevent inmates from communicating. The training time for each inmate was synchronized so that no two inmates were next to each other at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to plant and even keep pets in their sports yards. When the prisoner left the cell, the accompanying guard would put a hood over his head so that the other prisoners would not recognize him.

The cell rooms were advanced for their time, including a running water faucet above the flush toilet, and curved pipes along part of one wall that served as central heating during the winter months, where hot water ran through the pipes to keep the cells sufficiently warm. Twice a week, the guards of the cell block flushed the toilets remotely.

The initial design of the building included seven single-story cell blocks, but by the time the third block was completed, the prison was already full. All subsequent cell blocks had two floors. Towards the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily constructed due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell 15 was for the worst behaved prisoners and security was completely closed from there.

Prisoners were punished with an "individual treatment system." At that time, this type of punishment was considered the most effective. They would be separated from others.

In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep the "Killer Dog" (a real dog) to life in the Eastern State. Pep allegedly killed the beloved cat of the governor's wife. Prison records show that Pep was assigned an inmate number (No. C2559), which can be seen in his photo. However, the reason for Pep's imprisonment remains a matter of debate. A contemporary newspaper article reported that the governor had donated his own dog to the prison to boost the morale of the inmates.

On April 3, 1945, twelve prisoners made a great escape (including the infamous Willie Sutton), who managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot (30 m) tunnel under the prison wall during the year. During renovations in the 1930s, another 30 unfinished tunnels dug by prisoners were discovered.

In 1965, it was recognized as a national historical monument.

The prison was closed in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, about 31 miles (50 km) northwest of Eastern State. The City of Philadelphia purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping it. The site had several proposals, including a shopping center and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the walls of an old prison.

During the derelict era (from the closure to the late 80s), the "forest" grew up in the cell blocks and outside in the walls. The prison has also become home to many stray cats.

In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Group successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Hood to stop the renovation. In 1994, Eastern State opened historical tours to the public.


The end of the solitary confinement system

The solitary confinement system eventually collapsed due to overcrowding problems. By 1913, Eastern State officially abandoned solitary confinement and operated as an assembly prison until it closed in 1970 (Eastern State was briefly used to house city prisoners in 1971 after the Holmesburg Prison Riot).

The prison was one of the largest public projects of the early republic and was a tourist attraction in the 19th century. Famous visitors included Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville, and famous inmates included Willie Sutton and Al Capone in 1929. Visitors interacted with the prisoners in their cells, proving that the prisoners were not isolated, although the prisoners themselves were not allowed to see family or friends during their stay.

Most of the early inmates were petty criminals who were incarcerated for various robbery and theft charges (larceny, pickpocketing, pickpocketing, burglary, etc.), and first-time offenders often served two years.

The penitentiary was not just to punish, but to push the criminal to spiritual reflection and change. Although some claim that the Pennsylvania system was Quaker-inspired, there is little evidence to support this; the Eastern State's founding organization, the State Prison Relief Society (now the Pennsylvania Prison Society), was less than half Quaker, and for nearly fifty years it was headed by the Anglican bishop of Philadelphia, William White. Proponents of the system firmly believed that criminals exposed to silent thoughts about their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes would become genuinely remorseful.

In fact, the facility's guards and counselors developed a variety of physical and psychological torture schemes for various violations, including dousing inmates with ice-cold water outside during the winter months, tying their tongues to their wrists in such a way that struggling with the chains forces them to tear out their tongues, tying prisoners to chairs with tight leather restraints for days at a time, while the worst behaved prisoners are thrown into a pit called The Hole, an underground cell dug beneath cell 14, where they will have no light or human contact , and little food for two weeks.


Reform and reorganization of the penitentiary system

SCI Graterford opened in the 1920s after the Eastern State Riots; The Pennsylvania Board of Prisons opened Graterford to perform the functions formerly performed by Eastern State.

Before its closure in late 1969, Eastern State Penitentiary (then known as State Correctional Institution, Philadelphia) developed a far-reaching program of group therapy to involve all inmates. Since 1967, when the plan was launched, the program appears to have been moderately successful, with many inmates being involved in groups that were voluntary. An interesting aspect was that the groups were led by two therapists, one from mental health or social work staff and the other from prison service staff.


Architectural significance

When the Eastern State Penitentiary, or Cherry Hill as it was then known, was built in Francisville in 1829 (the idea for this new penitentiary came from a meeting held at Benjamin Franklin's house in 1787), it was the largest and the most expensive public structure in the country. Its architectural significance first arose in 1821, when British architect John Haviland was selected to design the building. Haviland found the greatest inspiration for his penitentiary plan in the prisons and asylums built from the 1780s onwards in England and Ireland. He gave the prison a neo-Gothic look to instill fear in those thinking of committing a crime.

These complexes consist of wings of cells radiating in the form of a semi- or full circle from a central tower, from where the prison could be under constant surveillance. Haviland's penitentiary design became known as the knot-and-spoke plan, which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cells, each containing two rows of large solitary cells—8 × 12 ft. × 10 ft. in height — with hot water heating, a water tap, a toilet and separate exercise areas the same width as the cell.

The cell wall had rectangular openings through which prisoner food and work materials could be passed, as well as peepholes so that guards could observe the prisoners without being seen. To minimize the possibility of communication between prisoners, Haviland designed a basic toilet for each cell with separate pipes leading to a central sewer, which he hoped would prevent the transmission of messages between adjacent cells.

Despite his efforts, the prisoners were still able to communicate with each other, and the flushing system had to be redesigned several times. Haviland noted that he chose the design to promote "observation, convenience, economy, and ventilation." After the construction of the prison was completed in 1836, it could accommodate 450 prisoners.

Haviland completed the architecture of the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1836. Each chamber was illuminated by only one source of light, either from skylights or windows, which was considered the "Window of God" or the "Eye of God". The Church viewed imprisonment, usually in solitary confinement, as a tool that could change sinful or disruptive behavior. Time spent in prison would help inmates reflect on their crimes, giving them a mission of redemption.


A modern historical place

Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historical site, open year-round. Guided tours are available, as well as audio tours (narrated mainly by Steve Buscemi, with former guards, wardens and inmates). A scavenger hunt is available for children.

Visitors are allowed into a few specially marked solitary cells, but most remain off-limits and filled with original debris and debris from years of neglect. The Philadelphia skyline can be seen from the jail yard, which still has the original baseball bat and a chain-link fence atop the "outer wall," the prison's outer wall, to try to keep home run balls on the grounds.

In addition, Eastern State hosts many special events throughout the year. Every July there is a Bastille Day celebration, complete with a comedic interpretation of the storming of the Bastille and the throwing of a thousand delicious dishes from the towers, accompanied by the cry "let them eat delicious!" from the actor playing Marie Antoinette. (This Philadelphia tradition sadly ended in 2018.)

About 220,000 visitors visit the museum every year.

Religious murals in the prison chaplain's office, painted in 1955 by inmate Lester Smith, remain visible to visitors despite damage from sunlight.

The tour concludes with an exhibit titled "Rules Today: Issues in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which informs guests about the current US prison system and its shortcomings.

The facility was kept in "reserved ruins," meaning no major repairs or restorations were made until 1991, when The Pew Charitable Trusts provided funding to begin stabilization and preservation efforts.

Fundraising and projects
Perimeter Lighting: 2001 saw the completion of the Perimeter Lighting project, funded by the Department of Community and Economic Development ($250,000) and the 2000 Halloween fundraiser ($50,000).
Rotunda and Links Roofing: In 2002, the Rotunda and Links Roofing project was funded by the Save America's Treasures Award ($500,000), the City of Philadelphia ($355,000), Keystone Historic Preservation ($90,000), and the Halloween Fundra ($200,000). 2005) is complete.
Industrial Building Stabilization: An Industrial Building Stabilization Project was completed in 2003, funded by the Eastern State Penitentiary Board of Directors, Senator Vincent J. Fumo, 2001 Annual Appeal, a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Penitentiary Hospital: The Penitentiary Hospital Roof Stabilization Project, funded by the 2002 Annual Appeal, commenced in 2003 and was completed in January 2004.
Penitentiary Greenhouse: The Penitentiary Greenhouse Stabilization Project, funded by the 2004 Annual Appeal, began in 2004 and was completed in April 2005.
Alfred W. Fleischer Memorial Synagogue: In 2006, the synagogue project began. Named after the prison reformer, founder and president of the Board of Trustees of the Eastern State Penitentiary from 1924-1928, the restoration of the Jewish synagogue was completed in 2009. Funding was led by the Synagogue Restoration Committee, chaired by Cindy Vanerman, and included the Suzanne F. and Ralph J. Roberts Foundation, the Eileen C. and Brian L. Roberts Foundation, the Douglas Alfred and Diana Bayless Roberts Foundation, the Howard G. and Adele F. Fleischer, the family of William Portner, and a long list of others.
Eastern State Penitentiary Solarium, sunlight and fresh air above the hospital block : The Solarium project began in 2008, funded mostly by individual donations. Built in 1922 over a tuberculosis hospital, the restoration was important not only architecturally, but and for the future of cell block 3 below.
Eastern State Penitentiary Kitchen and Bakery: In 2009, a kitchen and bakery roof stabilization project was initiated and completed, funded primarily by individual donors. The project will provide protection for several years until financing can be acquired for a permanent roof.
Death Row, The Last Cell Block Built : In 2011, assembly began in preparation for the restoration of the roof and drainage system of "cell block 15". In fact, no one was executed at the penal colony.
Operating Room In 2003 and 2004, donors to the 2002 annual appeal made possible temporary repairs to the roof and drainage system of the operating room and intensive care unit, which prevented a possible roof collapse. This is a significant part of the penitentiary, as until its completion in 1910 operations were generally carried out in cell blocks. Between 2009 and 2012, the roof over the solarium and chamber 3 was rebuilt. Donations were collected from 183 donors for the $35,000 needed to stabilize and preserve the operating room. The collected $54,000 made it possible to implement the "History by hand" program.

In 1996 and 2000, the World Monuments Fund included the Eastern State Penitentiary on its biennial World Monuments Watch list of endangered cultural heritage sites.


Terror beyond the walls

Terror Beyond the Walls is an annual Halloween haunted house event hosted by Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. (ESPHS). The first Halloween fundraiser was held over Halloween weekend in 1991. The first events took many forms, including short theatrical productions and true accounts of prison murders and violence. In 1997, the event was renamed Terror Beyond the Walls, becoming an attraction that stuns rather than catches fire.

In 2001, it was divided into three separate, smaller haunted attractions, including a 3-D haunted house. At the time, it was the only three-dimensional haunted house in southeastern Pennsylvania and one of the first in the United States. In 2003, four semi-permanent haunted attractions were built in the penitentiary complex.

The 2014 event featured six rides: Lock Down, The Machine Shop, Detritus, Infirmary, The Experiment and Night Watch. The 2016 event also included six rides: Lock Down: The Uprising, The Machine Shop, Break Out, Detritus, Infirmary and Quarantine 4-D. The Blood Yard haunted attraction was added in 2017.

Art exhibits
Ghost Cats – When the prison closed in 1971, a colony of cats lived inside. As recovery began, the cats were captured and neutered, leading to their eventual deaths. Artist Linda Brenner sculpted 39 cat sculptures that surround the house. The sculptures were purposefully made from a material that slowly dissolves over time to represent the inevitable natural decay that all living things face.
End of the Tunnel - Hundreds of feet of red pipes have been installed by artist Dayton Castleman, representing escape routes used by prisoners.
Table of Memories – Six dioramas were sculpted by artist Susan Hagen to represent important moments in the prison's history. They are scattered around the seventh block of cells.
GTMO - A replica of a Guantanamo Bay cell was created by artist William Cromar in one of the cells.
Halfway through another day, a metal sundial set up to show Michael Grothusen's "passage of time" in the courtyard of the first cell block.
I've Always Wanted to Go to Paris, France - Artist Alexa Hoyer installed three televisions, one in her cell, one in the hallway and one in the shower room, showing seven decades of prison films. The title "I've Always Wanted to Go to Paris, France" is taken from a quote from one of the film's scenes shown in a prisoner's cell.
Juxtaposition - Brothers Matthew and Jonathan Stemler split cell #34 in block 11 horizontally. The grid on the ceiling supports the display of suspended pieces of plaster along one plane. The ground mica slate laid on the floor softens the step and enhances the texture of the space, while the bench provides a better vantage point from which to view and consider the overall effect of the piece.
My Glass House is an ongoing project created by artist Judith Taylor by taking black and white photographs of the natural habitat found within the prison walls. The prints are then turned into glass, and the missing glass is replaced in a greenhouse in the courtyard of the first cell block.
Living Space - Created by Joanna Inman and Anna Norton, Living Space consists of five videos featuring time-lapse photographs of how changing weather and lighting changes at Eastern State Penitentiary. The artists placed their cameras in the places that make Eastern State Penitentiary unique, to capture the subtle ways nature plays on the structure of the building. The goal was to create contemplative photographs. By allowing the public to see the gradual effects of time on specific sites, growth and decay are recognized and explored as components that make Eastern State Penitentiary a more livable space.
Cleaning Not Done - Mary Jo Bowle's exhibition explores the history of plumbing in the penitentiary. The water supply in the building was earlier than in the White House. The sculptural pieces, made of resin, brass and frosted glass, are modeled after John Haviland's original plumbing design for Eastern State Penitentiary. The exhibit includes views of plumbing from the perspective of those who live or work in prisons, including inmates, prison guards, and plumbing manufacturers. In addition, the exhibit showcases both opaque and translucent sculptures, in which the translucent parts glow within the cells.


Cultural parcels

With its ominous appearance, dark atmosphere, and long history, the Eastern State has been used as a location for ghost television programs and movies. Paranormal television shows such as Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, BuzzFeed Unsolved, and MTV's Fear have explored the paranormal in Eastern State. Eastern State was also used in an episode of Cold Case called "The House", which deals with a murder after a prisoner escapes. For the show, the prison was renamed the Northern State Penitentiary.

On June 1, 2007, Most Haunted Live! conducted and broadcast a paranormal investigation live (a first in the United States) from the Eastern State Penitentiary for seven continuous hours, hoping to make contact with supernatural beings. In the PlayStation 2 game The Suffering, players can find a video documentary about Eastern State Penitentiary as one of the inspirations for the game.

At least two music videos were filmed in Eastern State: On July 29, 1985, Tina Turner filmed her video for "One of the Living" in an abandoned prison. Philadelphia punk band The Dead Milkmen's hit "Punk Rock Girl" included footage of the band in prison as well as driving through the Fairmount neighborhood.

The eastern state has also been the location of several feature films. It was used as a location for a mental hospital in Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys. In the 1998 film Return to Paradise, it was used as a stand-in for a prison in Malaysia. The 2000 film Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi, drew heavily on Eastern State in its depiction of a prison in a state of disrepair. In June 2008, Paramount Pictures used parts of Eastern State Penitentiary to film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

In September 2008, History Press released Eastern State Penitentiary: A History, the only comprehensive history book currently in print on Eastern State. It was written by Paul Kahan, a historian and former tour guide, with assistance from the site's director of education; the book has a foreword written by a former correctional social worker.

In 2012, the soundtrack to the film Alpha Girls was recorded at Eastern State Penitentiary by the band Southwork.


Haunting in Eastern State Penitentiary

Many people who visited Eastern State Penitentiary claimed to witness paranormal activity. Some people heard sounds, giggling and shouting. Others were pushed, shoved and even kicked by unseen spirits. One of the more famous cases occurred in the Cell Block #4, when a locksmith tried to remove a 140 year old lock. As soon as he opened a door he felt a force that pushed him. He started seeing faces and bodies of people that once lived here.