Charles Dickens and I have something in common. Both of us visited Eastern State Penitentiary. Dickens would write in his travel journal, “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” I encourage you to visit Eastern State and draw your own conclusions.
My husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon touring Philadelphia’s historic prison. We last visited several years ago when wearing a hard hat and signing a waiver were required for admission. Today those measures are no longer necessary.
The guided tours were sold out the day we visited, but the audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi was informative. When the initial tour was complete, we were able to explore the property on our own. There were other points of interest to find that also had a corresponding audio track.
Architect John Haviland submitted the winning plans for Eastern State. His wheel and spoke design won him $100.00 and the structure would be the model for future institutions. Eastern State would have central heat and running water before the White House.
In the beginning, Eastern State reformed prisoners through isolation. Each cell had its own exercise yard which was enclosed on all sides, but outside air was plentiful as the top of the area was open. Each cell contained a door leading out to this area.
To further isolate the inmates, whenever a prisoner was moved about the facility, they wore a burlap hood to prevent any contact with other inmates. A prisoner could spend their entire sentence at Eastern State Penitentiary and never see another person. Visitors were not allowed at Eastern State for the first 10 years of its existence. After a decade, a no-contact visitation room was used.
If an inmate caused a problem during their stay, they would find themselves in the punishment cells, also known as The Hole and Klondike. Having toured this area of the prison as part of the Hands on History program, the experience must have been horrifying for the prisoners. The cells were located below ground. There were no windows and it was impossible to stand up straight. The low ceilings were designed to force the inmate into an uncomfortable position. This area of the prison had no plumbing, and each inmate was allowed only a bedpan in their cell. The prisoners were left alone except when meals were brought. A large metal structure closed over the stairs to the punishment cells to prevent escape in the unlikely event the inmates breached their cell doors. People could spend months below ground and some would lose their sight when they emerged. As a result, use of the punishment cells was discontinued and the practice deemed inhumane.
During our time at Eastern State we toured Death Row. It should be noted that no one was ever put to death at this facility. The condemned were sent to the State Correctional Institute at Rockville for execution, which is still used for that purpose today.
One of the most (in)famous occupants at Eastern State was gangster Al Capone. He served the first prison time of his life here. Capone received an eight-month sentence for carrying a concealed weapon. Because of his notoriety, he was allowed items in his cell that other inmates were not, and his cell can be viewed today.
Inmate C2559 was another popular inmate at Eastern State. Pep, a black Labrador Retriever, was rumored to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat. For this crime the governor sentenced the dog to life without parole, although his guilt has come into question. Pep’s supporters believe he was given to the prison not to serve a sentence, but to serve as a mascot. A Maine prison had been gifted a dog for this purpose, and the governor may have donated his dog. Guilty or innocent, we know Pep resided at Eastern State for approximately 10 years.
Fairly new to Eastern State is the Towercam. Visitors can control the guard tower cameras to get a good look around the sprawling property. It gives an idea of how much ground the guards patrolled.
I enjoyed my time spent at Eastern State, and suggest allowing a few hours to explore the facility. I have also experienced Terror Behind the Walls at Halloween and while that is a scary good time, there is nothing like touring the facility in the daytime. Seeing the real conditions inmates were subjected to is far more disturbing than any haunted house. However, Terror Behind the Walls funds the prison to keep it running, so please support the haunt in the fall. You will not be disappointed in either attraction.