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Eastern State Penitentiary
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary
Location: 21st St. & Fairmount Ave.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Built/Founded: 1829 (closed in 1971)
Architect: John Haviland
Governing body: State
Added to NRHP: October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL: June 23, 1965[2]
NRHP Reference#: 66000680

The Eastern State Penitentiary is one of America's former prisons. It was operational from 1829 until 1971 and is located on Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its revolutionary system of incarceration was the first to establish the policy of separate confinement, emphasizing principles of reform rather than punishment. Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its unique wagon wheel design. When the building was erected it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.

It is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark.[2], open to the public as a museum for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year 10 am to 5 pm.



Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary, despite the fact that the Walnut Street Jail, which opened in 1776, was called a "penitentiary" as early as 1790 . 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. The original goal was for prisoners to want to open up to God, thus seeking penance.

The original design of the cells were separated by a metal door and a wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church. Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack to a security guard. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the "Eye of God", hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching them. Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn't communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards. When prisoners left the cell, a guard would accompany them and wrap them in a hood.

The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, it was already over capacity. From then on, all the other cell blocks were 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 prisoners, and the guards were gated off.

A typical cell

It was widely believed (then and now) that the policy of keeping prisoners in intense isolation, rather than leading to the spiritual actualization and social reform it intended, induced significant mental illness among many of its prisoners instead. The 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 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. 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.

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 in fact 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 them into a pit called "The Hole" dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.

In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering 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 newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.[3]

On April 3, 1945, a major prison 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 tunnel under the prison wall to freedom. During renovations in the 1930s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were also discovered.

It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.[2][4]

The prison was closed and abandoned in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, about 31 miles west 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.

Architectural significance

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 (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.[5] 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. 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.[5] 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.[5] 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" (Norman Johnson, Crucible of Good Intentions:35). Once construction of the prison was completed in 1836, it could house 450 prisoners.[6]

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, 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 will help inmates reflect on their crimes committed giving them the mission for redemption. Gothic churches and cathedrals were mainly built in Europe, France and England in the 13th through the 17th centuries. The structure was not only built in a Gothic style to intimidate wrongdoers, but to remind the free citizens what might befall on them should they break the law."[7][8]


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 tours are also available (narrated mainly by Steve Buscemi, with former guards, wardens and prisoners also contributing). In addition, it 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,[9] accompanied by a cry of "let them eat Tastykake!" from an actress portraying Marie Antoinette. In October, it offers the "Terror Behind the Walls" haunted house.

A deteriorated cell.

The facility has been kept in "preserved ruin", meaning no significant attempts have been made at renovations or upkeep.

Due to Eastern State's ominous appearance, gloomy atmosphere and long history, it is used as a location for television shows and movies about hauntings. Ghost Hunters , Ghost Adventures and MTV's Fear explored the supernatural at Eastern State, while Terry Gilliam's film Twelve Monkeys used it as the setting for a mental hospital. 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. 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.

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.


Prison Reform and Rehabilitation

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.[10]

Art exhibits

  • Ghost Cats - When the prison closed in 1971, a colony of cats lived inside. When restoration began, the cats were captured and neutered, thus causing the cats to eventually die off. Artist Linda Brenner sculpted 39 cat sculptures, which surround the property. The cat sculptures were purposefully made of a material that slowly dissolves over time to represent the inevitable natural decay that faces all living things.
  • The End of the Tunnel - Hundreds of feet of red piping were installed by artist Dayton Castleman representing paths of escape routes used by prisoners.
  • Recollection Tableaux - Six dioramas were sculpted by artist Susan Hagen to represent important moments in the prison's history. They are scattered around cell block seven.
  • GTMO - A replica of a Guantanamo Bay cell was set up by artist William Cromar inside one of the cells.
  • Midway of Another Day - A metal sundial set up to show "the passing of time", set up by Michael Grothusen in the courtyard of cell block one.
  • I always wanted to go to Paris, France - Artist Alexa Hoyer set up three TV's, one in a cell, one in a hallway, and one in a shower room, showing seven decades of prison films. The title "I always wanted to go to Paris, France" is a quote taken from one of the film excerpts screened in the prisoner's cell.
  • Juxtaposition - Brothers Matthew and Jonathan Stemler divided cell #34 in cell block 11 horizontally. A grid at the ceiling supports a display of suspended plaster pieces along a single plain. Ground mica schist poured onto the floor softens the step and enhances the texture of the space, while a bench provides a vantage point in which to view and consider the overall effect of the piece.
  • My Glass House - An ongoing project set up by artist Judith Taylor by taking black and white pictures of natural habitat found in the prison's walls. The prints are then turned into glass, and replace the missing glass in the greenhouse in the courtyard of cell block one.
  • Living Space- Created by Johanna Inman and Anna Norton, Living Space consists of five videos containing time-lapse photographs of the ways Eastern State Penitentiary is altered by the changes of weather and light. The artists set up their cameras in places that make Eastern State Penitentiary unique, in order to capture the subtle ways nature plays upon the structure of the building itself. The goal was to create photographs which are contemplative in nature. By allowing the public to see the gradual effects of time upon specific places in the building, both growth and decay are recognized and explored as components that make Eastern State Penitentiary a more living space.
  • Purge Incomplete- Mary Jo Bole’s exhibit will explore the history of plumbing at Eastern State Penitentiary. Interestingly, the building has a history of having running water before the White House. Consisting of sculptural pieces made of resin, brass, and frosted glass, Bole’s designs are modeled after John Haviland’s original design for the plumbing at Eastern State Penitentiary. The exhibit will include views of the plumbing from the vantage point of those residing or working at the prison, including that of the prisoners, prison guards, and the manufacturers of the plumbing. Additionally, the exhibit will showcase the sculptures as having both opaque and translucent factors, in which the translucent parts will glow within the cells.
  • Philly Artblog- Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof, publishers and editors of one of America's top art blogs visited the Eastern State Penitentiary's art exhibits and documented them on video.[11]

Photo gallery


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.  
  2. ^ a b c "Eastern State Penitentiary". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-01-09.  
  3. ^
  4. ^ Richard E. Greenwood (August 6, 1974) (PDF), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Eastern State Penintentiary, National Park Service,, retrieved 2009-06-22   and Accompanying 6 drawings and photos, exterior and interior, various dates.PDF (2.45 MB)
  5. ^ a b c Johnston, Norman. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994.
  6. ^ Johnston, Norman. The Human Cage: A Brief History of Prison Architecture. New York: Walker and Company, 1973.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Dobrzynsky, Judith H., "For a Summer Getaway, A Model Prison" from the New York Times, July 11, 2007. Available online
  10. ^ Prison Manifesto. ISBN 0-9769715-0-X. Author Bernard Mazie
  11. ^

External links

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


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