If the idea of touring a long abandoned prison like Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA appeals to you, then you totally get me. And you’ll love everything I have to say about this historic prison.
For those of you that said or thought, “Why would you want to go to a prison?” read on. It’s an important part of our past and gives insights as to what our prison system should be today.
Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary
Like most people these days, I’m anxious to get out of the house but do it safely. So in a bid to play tourist at least once before summer was over, I planned a day trip to Philadelphia to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. And when I say Philly, I mean Philly.
This historic prison is located in the Northeast section of Philadelphia, right on Fairmount Avenue. It’s not hard to miss as it takes up an entire city block. Also, it looks like a castle, complete with the walls of a fortress.
Parking is free if you park on one of the surrounding streets on the prison side of the street. I had no issue finding parking but there are some paid lots nearby as well.
Right now, you’ll need to purchase your tickets online in advance and reserve a time slot. The timed entrance ensures that it’s not too crowded and you’re able to keep your distance from others.
Start times are available throughout the day on Friday through Sunday and in lieu of a tour guide, you’ll get a sanitized, handheld audio device that will navigate you through the prison and give you a full tour.
Bonus: It’s narrated by Steve Buscemi. Yes, THAT Steve Buscemi, who came across Eastern State Penitentiary years ago when scouting for shooting locations.
In fact, the location has been used for quite a few movies and photo shoots.
The History of Eastern State Penitentiary
Once you’ve got your headset, you’re off on a self-guided tour. You move at your own pace and can start/stop/repeat the narration and adjust the volume as needed. You’ll start at the far end of Cell Block 1 which will ultimately lead you to the hub of the prison.
Along the way, you learn about prison life in the late 1700s. It was essentially a room full of ruffians and hooligans. A massive free for all. A giant holding cell.
And then along came the Pennsylvania Prison Society, including Benjamin Franklin, who decided that criminal men and women needed rehabilitation and that came in the form of penitence. His idea was to create isolated cells (much like solitary confinement today) to allow prisoners to become “penitent” and reflect on their actions.
The prison opened in 1829 and the isolation was intentional and severe. One prisoner recounted spending two years there and never seeing another soul. Cells were designed to be entered from the outside into a small, private walled courtyard. Beyond this courtyard was a single cell. The cells were connected via a long hallway but the only opening in the cell was from a sky light in the ceiling and a “feeding hole” where they received their meals.
In addition to the physical isolation, they were required to remain silent. Even attempting to speak to another prisoner through cracks and walls would result in severe punishment.
The original 450 cells in 3 cellblocks ended up being a costly endeavor (one of the most expensive of the day) and the structure of future cellblocks would change, as would the prisoner environment.
As a cost-saving measure, cellblocks started being built with second stories while still retaining the general architectural characteristics of the original cellblocks.
In the later prison years (the prison finally closed in 1971), The cellblock were built 3 stories high and functioned more like the “New York system” as opposed to the “Pennsylvania system.” Down this hallway, audio recordings from 20th century prisoners recount what prison life was like at Eastern State Penitentiary.
As the cellblock tours conclude, you end up in the “yard.” Since masks were required during the tour, they also had an outdoor mask relief area where you could take a break and get fresh air, if needed. There are a few other stops along the yard, if you choose. Like the former kitchen and the morgue.
But the tour isn’t over yet! There are still two key attractions that you won’t want to miss.
Death Row is an area where death row inmates were held. There were no executions that took place at Eastern State Penitentiary but they did hold prisoners that were later executed at other Pennsylvania prisons.
Contrasting death row is an upgraded cell belonging to one of Eastern State’s most famous prisoners, Al Capone. The notorious gangster actually served his first prison sentence here for possession of a concealed weapon. His two year stint was made to seem not quite as bad as the other prisoners had it.
Take Your Camera
There’s just so much to capture here and an amazing amount of natural light. Come prepared with your equipment and shoot away! The only thing they don’t permit is tripods so you’ll want to make sure all your equipment is handheld.
And if this isn’t creepy enough, be sure to check out their night tours. They typically do a Terror Behind the Walls tour to coincide with the Halloween season but this year, they’re simply offering night tours to give you a different perspective.
The State of Prisons Today
One last thing before you leave is the exhibit on the modern day prison system. Just off of “the yard” you’ll find some displays about the state of the U.S. prison system and discussions on how effective it truly is.
It’s also worth stopping in to see confessions of former prisoners and actual visitors that aren’t in prison but have committed crimes.
On our way to visit Al Capone’s cell, we walked through another cellblock where some of the cells had art installations. One in particular caught my eye.
In this cell, the walls were lined with requests from real prisoners living in solitary confinement through and organization called Photo Requests from Solitary. The requests are for a single photograph. And because personal objects are so few and far between in solitary confinement, they ask the prisoners to think creatively, think big, and be very very specific.
One request asked for a photograph of “a gray-bearded android who is part human and part concrete and steel.” Creative contributions can make a difference in the life of someone living in the same conditions as the early 1800s, sometimes for decades.
If you’re the creative type, I encourage to check out this project!
Video Tour of Eastern State Penitentiary
If Philadelphia and a prison isn’t on your bucket list or you’re limiting your travel, I welcome you to take a virtual tour with me and see some of the amazing history at Eastern State Penitentiary.
If you’re heading to Philadelphia, be sure to check out other experiences I’ve had!
The Best Cheesesteak in Philadelphia (come at me, bro)