Eastern State Penitentiary

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Eastern State Penitentiary
The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary.
Location2027 Fairmount Avenue
Fairmount, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Area11 acres (45,000 m2)[1]
Built1829 (closed in 1971)
ArchitectJohn Haviland
Architectural styleGothic Revival
Governing bodyState
NRHP Reference #66000680
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966[3]
Designated NHLJune 23, 1965[4]
Designated PHMCMay 02, 1996[2]
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Eastern State Penitentiary
The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary.
Location2027 Fairmount Avenue
Fairmount, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Area11 acres (45,000 m2)[1]
Built1829 (closed in 1971)
ArchitectJohn Haviland
Architectural styleGothic Revival
Governing bodyState
NRHP Reference #66000680
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966[3]
Designated NHLJune 23, 1965[4]
Designated PHMCMay 02, 1996[2]

The Eastern State Penitentiary, also known as ESP, is a former American prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[5] It is found at 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of the city, and was operational from 1829 until 1971. The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment.[6]

Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its innovative wagon wheel design. At its completion, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected, and quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.

The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark,[4] which is open to the public as a museum for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year 10 am to 5 pm.


Eastern State Penitentiary's 1836 floor plan

Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary. Eastern State's revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the "Pennsylvania System" or Separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.

The Pennsylvania System was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn System (also known as the New York System), which held that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment (Sing Sing prison was an example of the Auburn system). Although the Auburn system was favored in the United States, Eastern State's radial floor plan and system of solitary confinement was the model for over 300 prisons worldwide.

Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.[7]

Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack on a security guard. Others have explained the small doors forced the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the "Eye of God", suggesting to the prisoners that God was always watching them.[7]

Outside the cell was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners could not communicate. Exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards. When a prisoner left his cell, an accompanying guard would wrap a hood over his head to prevent him from being recognized by other prisoners.[7]

Cell accommodations were advanced for their time, including a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, as well as curved pipes along part of one wall which served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated. Toilets were remotely flushed twice a week by the guards of the cellblock.

One of the two story cell blocks in Eastern State Penitentiary

The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, the prison was already over capacity. All subsequent cell blocks had two floors. Toward the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily built due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell block 15 was for the worst behaved prisoners, and the guards were gated off from there entirely.

Inmates were punished with the "individual-treatment system." At the time this form of punishment was thought to be most effective. They would be separated from others.[8]

In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" (an actual dog) to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A contemporary newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.[1]

On April 3, 1945, a major escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton), who over the course of a year managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot (30 m) tunnel under the prison wall. During renovations in the 1930s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were discovered.

It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.[4][9]

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 mall and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the old prison walls

During the abandoned era (from closing until the late 80s) a "forest" grew in the cell blocks and outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats.

In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. In 1994, Eastern State opened to the public for historic tours.

End of the solitary confinement system[edit]

A typical cell in restored condition.

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

Al Capone's cell.
The remains of the barber shop.

The prison was one of the largest public-works projects of the early republic, and was a tourist destination in the 19th century. Notable visitors included Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville while notable inmates included Willie Sutton and Al Capone in 1929. Visitors spoke with prisoners in their cells, proving that inmates were not isolated, though the prisoners themselves were not allowed to have any visits with family or friends during their stay.

Most of the early prisoners were petty criminals incarcerated for various robbery and theft charges (muggers, pickpockets, purse-snatchers, burglars, etc.) and the first-time offenders often served two years.

The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. While some have argued that the Pennsylvania System was Quaker-inspired, there is little evidence to support this; the organization that promoted Eastern State's creation, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (today's Pennsylvania Prison Society) was less than half Quaker, and was led for nearly fifty years by Philadelphia's Anglican bishop, William White. Proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent.

In reality, the guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, including dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called "The Hole", an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.

Architectural significance[edit]

Eastern State Penitentiary's radial plan served as the model for hundreds of later prisons.

When the Eastern State Penitentiary, or Cherry Hill as it was known at the time, was erected in 1829 in Francisville (the idea of this new prison was created in a meeting held at Benjamin Franklin's house in 1787) it was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country.[10] Its architectural significance first arose in 1821, when British architect John Haviland was chosen to design the building. Haviland found most of his inspiration for his plan for the penitentiary from prisons and asylums built beginning in the 1780s in England and Ireland.[10] He gave the prison a neo-Gothic look to install fear into those who thought of committing a crime.[11]

These complexes consist of cell wings radiating in a semi or full circle array from a center tower from where the prison could be kept under constant surveillance. The design for the penitentiary which Haviland devised became known as the hub-and-spoke plan which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cell blocks, each containing two ranges of large single cells—8 x 12 feet x 10 feet high- with hot water heating, a water tap, toilet, and individual exercise yards the same width as the cell.[10]

There were rectangular openings in the cell wall through which food and work materials could be passed to the prisoner, as well as peepholes for guards to observe prisoners without being seen. To minimize the opportunities for communication between inmates Haviland designed a basic flush toilet for each cell with individual pipes leading to a central sewer which he hoped would prevent the sending of messages between adjacent cells.[10]

Despite his efforts, prisoners were still able to communicate with each other and the flushing system had to be redesigned several times. Haviland remarked that he chose the design to promote "watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation".[12] Once construction of the prison was completed in 1836, it could house 450 prisoners.[13]

John Haviland completed the architecture of the Eastern state penitentiary in 1836. Each cell was lit only by a single lighting source from either skylights or windows, which was considered the “Window of God” or “Eye of God”. The church viewed imprisonment, usually in isolation, as an instrument that would modify sinful or disruptive behavior. The time spent in prison would help inmates reflect on their crimes committed, giving them the mission for redemption.


The Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historic site, open year-round. Guided tours are offered during the winter, and during the warmer months, self-guided recorded tours with headphones are also available (narrated mainly by Steve Buscemi, with former guards, wardens and prisoners also contributing). A scavenger hunt is available for children.

Visitors are allowed to walk into several specially marked solitary confinement cells, but most of them remain off limits and filled with original rubble and debris from years of neglect. The city skyline of Philadelphia is visible from the prison courtyard, which still has the original baseball backstop and a chain link fence atop the "outfield wall," the outer prison wall to attempt to keep home run balls inside the grounds. There is also a camera located in the center guard tower, that lets visitors experience a guards view of the prison.

In addition, Eastern State holds many special events throughout the year. Each July, there is a Bastille Day celebration, complete with a comedic reinterpretation of the storming of the Bastille and the tossing of thousands of Tastykakes from the towers,[14] accompanied by a cry of "let them eat Tastykake!" from an actor portraying Marie Antoinette.


The facility was kept in "preserved ruin", meaning no significant attempts have been made at renovations or restoration, until 1991, when the The Pew Charitable Trusts provided funding so that stabilization and preservation efforts could begin.[15]

Fundraising and Projects[edit]

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

Terror Behind the Walls[edit]

"Terror Behind the Walls" is an annual Haunted House Halloween event run by the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. (ESPHS). The first Halloween fundraiser took place on Halloween weekend in 1991.[29] The early events took various forms, including short theatrical performances and true tales of prison murder and violence.[29] In 1995, the event was rebranded as "Terror Behind the Walls", becoming a high startle, low gore walkthrough haunted attraction.[29][30]

In 2001, it was broken up into three separate, smaller haunted attractions, including a 3-D haunted house. At the time, it was the only 3-D haunted house in Southeastern Pennsylvania and one of the first in the United States.[citation needed] In 2003, four semi-permanent haunted attractions were constructed inside the penitentiary complex.[29]

The 2014 the event includes six attractions: Lock Down, The Machine Shop, Detritus, Infirmary, The Experiment, and Night Watch.[31]

Cultural references[edit]

Due to its ominous appearance, gloomy atmosphere, and long history, Eastern State has been used as a location for television programs and films about hauntings. Paranormal TV shows like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and MTV's Fear explored the paranormal at Eastern State. Eastern State was also used in an episode of Cold Case titled "The House" which dealt with a murder after an inmate escape. For the show, the prison was renamed Northern State Penitentiary.

On June 1, 2007, Most Haunted Live! conducted and broadcast a paranormal investigation live (for the first time in the United States) from Eastern State Penitentiary for an unprecedented seven continuous hours hoping to come in contact with supernatural beings. Punk group the Dead Milkmen also filmed the music video for their song "Punk Rock Girl" in Eastern State. In the PlayStation 2 game, The Suffering, players can find a video documentary of Eastern State Penitentary, one of the inspirations for the game.

Eastern State has also served as a location in several feature films. Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys used it as the setting for a mental hospital. The 2000 film Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi relied heavily on Eastern State in its portrayal of a prison in a state of advancing decay. In June 2008, Paramount Pictures used parts of Eastern State Penitentiary for the filming of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

In September 2008 the History Press released Eastern State Penitentiary: A History, the only comprehensive history book currently in print about Eastern State. It was written by a former tour guide with the assistance of the site's education director, and has a forward written by the penitentiary's former social worker.

In 2012, the soundtrack to the film Alpha Girls was recorded in Eastern State Penitentiary by the band Southwork.[32]

Prison reform and rehabilitation[edit]

Prior to its closing in late 1969, Eastern State Penitentiary (then known as State Correctional Institution, Philadelphia) had established a far reaching program of group therapy with the goal of having all inmates involved. From 1967, when the plan was initiated, the program appears to have been moderately successful as many inmates were involved in the groups which were voluntary. An interesting aspect was that the groups were led by two therapists, one from the psych or social work staff, and the second from the prison officer staff.[33]

Art exhibits[edit]

Purge Incomplete, Mary Jo Bole's exhibit


  1. ^ a b http://www.easternstate.org/history/
  2. ^ "PHMC Historical Markers". Historical Marker Database. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Retrieved December 10, 2013. 
  3. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  4. ^ a b c "Eastern State Penitentiary". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-01-09. 
  5. ^ http://www.easternstate.org/
  6. ^ Paul Kahan, Eastern State Penitentiary: A History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008)
  7. ^ a b c Rowan, H. (n.d.). Eastern State Penitentiary- Treasures of Pennsylvania. Retrieved September 24, 2010, from http://www.treasuresofpa.com/2009/11/esp Reference to the prison doors of Eastern State Penitentiary. Pictures on website.
  8. ^ Vaux, Richard, 1816-1895. "Brief sketch of the origin and history of the State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, at Philadelphia." 2010.
  9. ^ Richard E. Greenwood (August 6, 1974). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Eastern State Penintentiary" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-06-22.  and Accompanying 6 drawings and photos, exterior and interior, various dates. PDF (2.45 MB)
  10. ^ a b c d Johnston, Norman. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994.
  11. ^ Dolan, Francis X. (2007). Eastern State Penitentiary. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publications. 
  12. ^ Norman Johnson, Crucible of Good Intentions:35
  13. ^ Johnston, Norman. The Human Cage: A Brief History of Prison Architecture. New York: Walker and Company, 1973.
  14. ^ Dobrzynsky, Judith H., "For a Summer Getaway, A Model Prison" from the New York Times, July 11, 2007. Available online
  15. ^ Historical timeline- Retrieved 2013-04-08
  16. ^ Perimeter Lighting project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  17. ^ Rotunda and Links Roofing project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  18. ^ Industrial Building Stabilization project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  19. ^ Penitentiary Hospital project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  20. ^ Penitentiary Greenhouse stabilization project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  21. ^ Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue Retrieved 2013-04-08
  22. ^ Synagogue donors Retrieved 2013-04-09
  23. ^ Solarium donors Retrieved 2013-04-08
  24. ^ Solarium sunshine and fresh air above hospital-block Retrieved 2013-04-09
  25. ^ 2008–2009 Kitchen and Bakery Roof Protection Donors -Retrieved 2-13-04-08
  26. ^ Kitchen and bakery roof stabilization project Retrieved 2013-04-08
  27. ^ Operating room donors -Retrieved 2013-04-09
  28. ^ Operating room Hospital block -Retrieved 2013-04-09
  29. ^ a b c d Turner, Bob (January 2006). "Copyright: Fright Insite". Tourist Attractions & Parks Magazine. 36 (No.1): 108–115. 
  30. ^ "America's Scariest Halloween Attractions". Travel Channel, USA. Season 1. Episode 1. 2007-10-27.
  31. ^ [1] - Retrieved 2014-09-26
  32. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2178927/trivia
  33. ^ Prison Manifesto. ISBN 0-9769715-0-X. Author Bernard Mazie

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 39°58′06″N 75°10′22″W / 39.96839°N 75.172652°W / 39.96839; -75.172652