A Place for Penitence, and Then Imprisonment

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Just north of downtown Philadelphia stands a concrete castle known as Eastern State Penitentiary. This high-profile prison was the first of the wagon-wheel design with a circular center encircled by spokes and was active from 1829 until 1971. Originally built on the outskirts of the city, as a warning to the townspeople that they do not want to be here, the city grew to surround the vacant prison.

This prison was originally built to house one inmate per cell and was the first prison designed as a true “penitentiary.” Derived from the word “penitence,” Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, later referred to as the “Pennsylvania System” encouraged solitary confinement as the primary form of rehabilitation.

It was a place wrongdoers came to repent and find the right path through God, and both the physical and disciplinary designs were copied hundreds of times and on almost every continent.

Ultimately, the system proved costly, due to maintenance (and a constantly increasing prison population), and two inmates were assigned in each space previously designated for only one.

The entrance fee of $12 includes an audio tour artfully narrated by actor and director Steve Buscemi. The insight of the audio recreates vivid scenes of how prisoners lived in Eastern State. Along the walls, pictures of the prisoners matched up to help further draw you into the scene.

Al was living in the lap of luxury at Eastern - seriously, this is almost exactly what his cell looked like.

After the basic overview of the prison, there are addition topics available to explore including Al Capone’s cell, the kitchen, and even what later became death row.

The museum’s guides also lead impromptu, short, guided topical tours featuring dozens of topics including part of the warden’s office, prison graffiti and more. The guide will announce the tour five minutes before and sometimes take you to areas not generally open to the public.

This is a great look at a prison from many different perspectives – through the eyes of guards, prisoners, archeologists and historians. Each layer peels off to find a new skin just waiting to be discovered.

Well worth a visit, but please dress according to the weather as there is no air conditioning and no heat.

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