Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is an uneasy sight when you first approach it. Its thick, high grey stone walls and medieval fortress look don’t betray the fact that it was built to keep people in, rather than out.

I visited Eastern State Penitentiary while travelling around Pennsylvania and making a stop in the lovely city of Philadelphia. Standing in the popular Fairmount area of the city it seems like an odd place to have a prison, but there it is, looming eerily since it was first opened in 1829.


Eastern State Penitentiary
The upper balcony along one side of a cell block.

ESP was the first prison of its kind, bringing in a new approach in dealing with prisoners. Moving away from the old prison system where men, women and children were all thrown in together and left to their own devices, this new system focused on rehabilitation through isolation and penitence. While prisoners had relative luxury (flush toilet, central heating, running water, and even their own small exercise yard) they were locked in their own cell alone, with only a bible to read, no interaction with others and even having a hood placed over their head on the occasions when they were allowed our of their cell. The idea was that they would have time to think about their crimes and how bad they were, leading to penitence. Hence the coining of the term penitentiary. Of course now, this seems like a form of severe deprivation, if not torture, but at that time, this Quaker inspired system seemed quite radical and forward thinking.


Eastern State Penitentiary
Looking from one cell across to another. Note how small the doorways are.


The actual building of Eastern State Penitentiary, with its cell blocks radiating from a central observation area, has served as a model for hundreds of other prisons all around the world including South America, Europe and Asia.


With additions to the building and changes to the way prisoners were treated over the years, ESP was finally closed in 1971. ESP is now in a derelict state, but serving as a museum. You can wander around and see the cells, originally with small, secure doors, and the “Eye of God’ skylights in the original cells. There’s even an opportunity to see the rumoured luxury of Al Capone’s cell!


If you’re interested in finding out more about Eastern State Penitentiary, you can go to https://www.easternstate.org