It’s not often that one pays money to enter a prison. But even if walking down spooky, crumbling cellblocks isn’t normally your thing, consider making an exception for Eastern State Penitentiary. Not only was the massive prison – which ceased operations in 1971 – home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, but it was also the first establishment of its kind. Easily one of Philadelphia’s most unique attractions, ESP is worth checking out whether you’re a history buff, architecture enthusiast, ghost hunter or urban explorer.
Arriving at Eastern State Penitentiary
The imposing walls and towers of Eastern State Penitentiary are visible from a long way down the street. Supposedly, the prison’s exterior was deliberately designed this way to help deter ordinary civilians from a life of crime. But nowadays, us ordinary folks line up at the ticket booth to make our way in.
After paying the $16 entrance fee, it was time to start exploring. At most museums or historical sites, I usually opt out of the audio tours. I prefer to read, take pictures and explore at my own pace. But Eastern State Penitentiary’s tour is narrated by none other than Steve Buscemi. He discovered it years ago while scouting out locations for the film Animal Factory.
Inside Cell Block 1, Buscemi’s narration, along with the informational signage, went over the early history of prisons in the United States. Relative to what was common at the time, Eastern State Penitentiary was an experimental endeavor that ended up revolutionizing prisons throughout the world.
Early jails in the United States were entirely mixed. All sorts of people, many of whom were awaiting trial, would be placed together in a single cramped room. But after the trial, imprisonment itself was not considered as a punishment. Rather, criminals were faced with fines or perhaps subject to public floggings.
The early 1800s saw the population of Pennsylvania rapidly expand. And so did the number of criminals. Politicians struggled with keeping order, especially among the growing lower classes. Long-term imprisonment gradually became more common, but prisons remained chaotic and unsanitary.
Some of the early Philadelphia prisons did, at least, experiment with things like separating debtors from violent criminals. But still, with so many people confined to single rooms, the prison atmosphere was raucous and dangerous.
Eastern State Penitentiary was revolutionary in the fact that it was one of the first prisons to keep prisoners isolated in their own cells. The concept was inspired by Quaker ideals, which encourage penance and reflection as a way to improve one’s self. ESP, therefore, was the first major prison to emphasize rehabilitation and not just punishment.
Well, at least in theory.
In reality, the early days of the penitentiary were quite dark, and ESP became notorious for the cruel punishments and abuses carried out by the guards. Some prisoners were thrown into small, dark holes underground. And in the winter time, guards would dip people in water and force them outside to freeze.
And while ESP was one of the first prisons to implement ventilation and plumbing systems, failures and mishaps were commonplace in the early days. Fortunately, though, conditions at the prison would eventually improve. And ESP would even set the standard for many future prisons to come.
A big part of this had to do with the prison’s innovative architectural design.
The Central Hub
Eventually I arrived at base of the central octagonal tower. And it was here from which all the other long cells emerged. The central hub also functioned as a surveillance tower from which guards could watch over the entire prison. While commonplace today, ESP was the first prison to utilize such a design.
While the original design called for seven cell blocks to emerge from the central hub, there ended up being over a dozen. And though the original plan also called for single-story cell blocks, later adjustments had to be made. Due to limited capacity, architects started designing two-story blocks, and sometimes even three.
Around 7 or 8 of the old cellblocks can be visited today, while the rest are inaccessible. But peering the the opening in the metal bars, I could get a pretty decent view.
While some cellblocks are completely off-limits, some of the abandoned areas can at least be partially accessed. I walked up a flight of stairs and peered into an empty, dilapidated room near the entrance – one which would’ve likely been restricted to prison staff. While there were a fair amount of other visitors at ESP that day, for a few moments, I found myself completely alone among the rubble.
Next, I walked down Cell Block 4. Unlike Cell Block 1, where many of the cells had been refurbished to resemble their original state, these appeared to have been left untouched for decades. And peering into these derelict old prison cells, I was overcome with an eerie feeling.
As I would later learn, Cellblock 4 is where many people have reported seeing sinister ghostly faces. And supposedly, a worker in the ’90s reported being gripped by a ghost here! It happened upon opening up one of these cells that had been locked up since the prison’s closure.
You won’t read anything about the prison’s paranormal activity on any of the informational signage. ESP’s management, however, certainly takes advantage of the building’s haunted reputation.
So many paranormal researches have been visiting the prison, in fact, that the official web site now accepts official bookings from ghost hunters. For $105, paranormal enthusiasts have access to the site from 21:00 – 1:00. But bringing your own equipment is required. And every year around Halloween, ESP even hosts a haunted house event, aptly titled ‘Terror Behind the Walls.’
Rather than spooky ghost tales, the hallways of Cellblock 4 is adorned with the pictures of its former inhabitants. And this part (and final portion of) the audio tour was especially interesting, as various stories were told by the ex-prisoners themselves.
Topics included common jobs the prisoners did, basketball competitions, racial relations, Christmas celebrations and how people passed the time. Interestingly, one of the speakers first worked as a guard at the prison but later ended up as an inmate!
Compared to the horrible atrocities that took place at Eastern State Penitentiary early on in its history, the 1950s and ’60s seemed to be much more tolerable. Some of the speakers even seemed to have a hint of nostalgia in their voices.
Walking all the way to the end of Cellblock 4, I found myself outside. This would’ve been one of the numerous exercise yards placed between the cell blocks. And this area in particular once featured a baseball diamond.
Interestingly, it also happened to be right by the former morgue and operating room. While inaccessible to visitors, but you can at least get a peak through some metal fencing.
In the middle of the yard today is a large graph demonstrating modern-day prison statistics of the United States. Nearby, I also took a peak inside the ‘Prisons Today’ exhibit, which details ongoing issues with the ‘prison for profit’ system of the USA. While I could see while they took the opportunity to put that in there, it all felt very out of place.
Exploring the Rest of the Prison
Returning back inside, I headed down Cellblock 7. In cell 68 at the very end, 12 prisoners once dug an escape tunnel which led all the way outside. The team had to use spoons and cans to dig through the wall, scattering the leftover dirt during their time outside. Unsurprisingly, the tunnel took months to complete.
Eventually, the tunnel even linked with the prison’s sewer system. And the tunnel entrance in the cell was cleverly concealed by a false panel. Luckily for the group of 12, one of their members was an experienced plasterer and stone mason.
The attempted escape took place in 1945. And the most well-known prisoner among the group was Willie Sutton, an infamous bank robber who stole millions of dollars over the course of his long ‘career.’
While the team did manage to make it out of the prison, most, including Sutton, were caught within hours or even minutes. For whatever reason, the crew decided to escape in broad daylight!
As the prison didn’t close until the 1970’s, the tunnel had long been filled in and covered up by the time ESP became a tourist attraction. After years of searching, the tunnel of legend was finally discovered in 2005.
Using ground-penetrating radar and a robotic rover, a team of archaeologists finally managed to find it. And today, in cell 68, a short documentary plays on loop which documents their efforts.
In between Cellblocks 11 and 2, I encountered a refurbished synagogue, along with some additional outdoor corridors and alleyways. And then walking back toward the central hub through Cellblock 8, I encountered yet another of the prison’s highlights: the former cell of Al Capone.
While notorious gangster Al Capone will forever be synonymous with the city of Chicago, he was imprisoned for the first time here at Eastern State Penitentiary. When traveling back to Chicago from Atlantic City, New Jersey, he stopped in Philly and got arrested for carrying an unlicensed revolver.
Capone spent seven months at ESP, and judging from his old cell, he clearly had it better than most. In addition to a collection of fancy furniture, he was even allowed to listen to music. Clearly, the prison officials wanted to make sure they were on the mob boss’s good side.
Even then, there was still more to see, and more stories to read about. And I ended up spending a much longer time at Eastern State Penitentiary than I could’ve anticipated. I walked through some of the remaining cellblocks, and took a peak at the former visitation room, before calling it a day.
And finally, after stepping back out into civilization, I took a deep breath of the crisp evening air.
Eastern State Penitentiary is located at 2027 Fairmont Avenue. It’s about five blocks east of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home to the famous Rocky steps). The nearest metro station is Fairmount Station – BSL.
Walking from the Independence Hall area takes around 45 minutes to an hour. Or, you can just head over with Uber or Lyft.
One of the best places to stay in Philadelphia would be Society Hill. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of well-preserved architecture from the colonial era. Just to the north are Independence Hall and Liberty Square. And to the south of the neighborhood is South Street, one of Philly’s most popular districts for nightlife and the arts.
Also consider staying somewhere nearby City Hall. It’s located on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s busiest street where you can find a number of major landmarks and also metro stations. Also nearby is the historical Old City district.
Other popular areas include Rittenhouse Square and Chinatown. And just to the west of downtown, the University City area, home to the Penn Museum and Drexel University, is also worthy of consideration.
All of the above-mentioned neighborhoods could be considered central Philadelphia. In general, the central area of the city is clean, safe and pleasant to explore. If you want to stay further away, though, be sure to do thorough research on that area. Philly has a lot of rough neighborhoods that you’re better off avoiding altogether.