The thick stone walls of the old Eastern State Penitentiary’s large square building with its central watch house look stark and daunting. But when you tour the now-closed prison, built in 1829, you’ll find that the place was actually not so harsh for its time. Sky-lit cells let in natural light. Gardens and even pets were allowed in the exercise yards. The jail’s approach was innovative for time: not just to punish, but to make the convicted men and women regret and reform.
The prison’s behavioral correction tactic was that criminals would never see the other inmates and they each had their own cell. Frequent visits by guards and regular labor forced them to work on their personal rehabilitation instead. This “Pennsylvania System” also became popular in Europe. Overcrowding caused the tactic to be abandoned in this penitentiary in 1913. In the late 1920s notorious bank robbers and gangsters, such as “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al “Scarface” Capone, served time in the Eastern State Penitentiary. Peek inside their surprisingly luxurious cells to learn their history.
When the prison closed in 1971, the blocks were maintained without drastic renovation. This allows you to experience the real conditions for prisoners in those days. Take the hour-long guided walk in winter, or rent the audio tour during the rest of the year. You’ll hear fascinating tales of great escapes and riots while roaming the cells. Keep your eyes peeled for special exhibits because the penitentiary museum frequently features prison-themed art.
If you love ghost stories or are intrigued by paranormal activity, plan your visit during September to November for the spooky Terror Behind the Walls tour, which is held after dark and has a Halloween theme.
The Eastern State Penitentiary is located on Fairmount Avenue, five blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is open daily, nearly all year round. Free on-street parking is available, or pay to park in the lot next door. The inexpensive Phlash sightseeing bus stops here and other public transport connections are available too.