Top 5 Things to See When Touring Eastern State Penitentiary

An abandoned Cell Block

Walking through the abandoned cell blocks of America’s most historic prison is eerily haunting. To see the cells where infamous inmates like Al Capone and bank robber ‘Slick Wille” Sutton spent their days is eye-opening. The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first prison in the world designed for reformation instead of punishment. You can take a self-guided tour through this abandoned prison complex that became the model for hundreds of prisons worldwide.

An abandoned Cell Block

Kayla and I took a road trip to Philadelphia with stops in Pittsburgh for one summer. Eastern State Penitentiary was the number one spot that Kayla wanted to visit. And we made a point of making this our first tourist attraction in Philadelphia that we enjoyed.

Eastern State Penitentiary InformationExterior view of the Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is designed like the spokes of a wheel radiating out from a central hub. At the time, it was the most extensive and most expensive building in the country. Located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia, it was operational from 1929 to 1971. The prison became a U.S. historical landmark in 1965.

Today, this abandoned and crumbling old prison allows people to tour the once crowded cell blocks, the exercise yard, and even see what daily life was like when a person was incarcerated here. The prison is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 4 p.m. being the last time you can enter. Admission is $15 for adults if you buy your ticket online or $17 at the door.

One of the events that I would love to come back and enjoy is Terror Behind the Walls. This is one of America’s top Haunted Attraction with six different haunted attractions to experience. All six attractions are included in one price for Terror Behind the Walls. You need to purchase tickets online by picking the date you want. Prices range from $24-44 depending on which day you choose. What a fabulous way to celebrate Halloween by spending it in a real haunted prison. Are you up for it?

The layout of the cell blocks of Eastern State Penitentiary

The History and Philosophy of the Eastern State PenitentiaryEntrance to the yard of the Eastern State Penitentiary

The purpose of this prison was to focus on penance and regret of the prisoner’s actions instead of punishing them for their crimes. The prisoners spent the majority of their day in solitary confinement for reflection. The prison cell blocks were even designed to give the feel that they were in church. Even the concrete jail cells were designed with skylights, so the ‘Eye of God’ would always see them. Although, even with the solitary confinement 23 hours a day, they had modern-day comforts with running water and heated cells.

Cell BlocksKayla exploring the cell block

Touring the facility is self-guided with an audio guide. Steve Buscemi narrates the audio guide with excerpts from real officers and prisoners. You can hear their voices telling how it was to live here with all of the solitude. There are a few cell blocks that are open for you to walk down and peek into cells. Although some of the creepier cell blocks that are deteriorating are off-limits. But, you can take photos through the gates. Surveillance Hub (Center) of Eastern State Penitentiary

Jail CellsKayla behind bars at Eastern State Penitentiary

Inside a jail cellFor us seeing inside the concrete small jail cells, it is hard to imagine spending your entire day all alone. There is only one skylight above for light. Initially, there was only one small door that they had to bend over to get through. This was to remind them of bowing for penance. Eventually, large wooden doors were added for the prisoners to enter and exit their cells. Bed frame, chair, and shoe in old jail cell

Sliding wooden doors to jail cells

Daily Life Kayla walking through an empty cell block

There wasn’t much for prisoners to do when they were incarcerated in ESP. Some of the amenities the prison had were a barbershop, greenhouse, along with its exercise yard. The prisoners would have limited if any, contact with another prisoner. Only the guard would keep them company escorting them to the exercise yard. Their entire day was spent in their cell regretting their life choices and put them on a path for redemption, or at least that is what the community was expecting them to do.

Exercise YardPrison Yard and the Big Graph depicting Prisons Today

The exercise yard at ESP in my eyes doesn’t look that big. But it didn’t need to be. Each prisoner, when allowed to go outside, had a reserved time slot. This was done so that no two prisoners in adjacent cells would be allowed to be exercising at the same time. The prisoner’s head was even covered by a hood as they were being escorted to the yard so, no one knew who was going outside. Today in the exercise yard, there is an exhibit showcasing how prisons today have changed and are failing. It is an enlightening exhibit.

SummaryWithin the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary

Visiting this prison and seeing how they focused on reformation instead of punishment, truly makes you think how today’s prison system is failing. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the prison systems today have the space to keep every prisoner confined separately. There is too much mass incarceration in America. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but visiting ESP enlightened me on the history of prisons and how they have changed over the years. Touring this facility gives you a great perspective on the part of our everyday life that we don’t think about, which makes this historical landmark a must-visit destination when you are traveling to Philadelphia.

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Further Reading

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  • susan 28June2020 at 12:10 AM Reply

    You were in my neck of the woods. Despite living in the Philadelphia area most of my life I’ve never been to Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve read so much about it and heard many stories. Every year I say I’m going to go and before I know it another year has gone by. I really just need to do it.

    • Heather 28June2020 at 11:18 AM Reply

      OMG! I would totally go since you are so close. Especially at Halloween. Then you can tell me how it is!

  • Shelley 27June2020 at 5:08 PM Reply

    Wow, what an interesting place. You got to experience such a cool piece of American history by visiting.

    • Heather 28June2020 at 11:17 AM Reply

      Thank you, Shelley! I hope you get to visit someday.

  • Elina 27June2020 at 7:12 AM Reply

    Very interesting article and something different to see when visiting Pennsylvania!

    • Heather 27June2020 at 9:34 AM Reply

      Thank you, Elina! It is definitely off the beaten path.

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