- Eastern State Penitentiary is a 9.8-acre abandoned prison in Philadelphia.
- Last year, I took a tour of the ruins and walked through the former cell blocks, prison cells, and offices.
- Along the way, I learned about the prison’s brutal history and its turn toward a more social environment.
- In the end, the crumbling facades, rotting walls, and haunted history are what creeped me out the most.
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The Eastern State Penitentiary looms over Philadelphia like an ominous fortress.
The first time I visited the city was in 2019, and I was struck by the abandoned prison’s dark force as my family drove past. Once a prominent prison for famous inmates, today Eastern State is abandoned but does offer daily tours for $US16.
After finally making my way to tour the prison and spending three hours inside its walls, I left with goosebumps. This is what it’s like inside the now-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary.
I sheepishly walked up to the Eastern State Penitentiary, awestruck by its size and architecture.
The looming and ominous building sits on 9.8 acres of land in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighbourhood.
When the prison was built in 1829, it was on the outskirts of Philadelphia. But the city expanded around the prison walls, so it now stands awkwardly within the metropolis.
The odd placement was jarring. Across the street from trendy bars and restaurants sits this 19th-century prison that resembles a fortress.
The fortress-like architecture was meant to scare people away and keep prisoners inside its walls. In fact, the towers and windows on the exterior are not functional and are all for show.
It was surprising to find out that on the other side of the wall, the windows don’t exist and the towers have no entrances. The whole exterior is just a facade.
Once I stepped through the main lobby, I was given a map of the premises and learned about the intricate layout of the inner prison.
The fortress-like exterior hides the radial structure of the inner prison. At the centre of the premises, there’s a circular room. Off the circular room, there are several hallways that act as cell blocks. The prison was designed to look like a wheel, with each cell block as a spoke.
When the prison first opened in the 1800s, there were only seven cellblocks. Eight more were added as prison capacity increased.
Inmates would enter the prison through this hallway and go through the intake process.
Before there were mugshots and fingerprints, inmates were identified solely based on characteristics. In the early days of the prison, the rooms down this hall were where guards took note of a new inmate’s physical appearance and behaviour to identify him later on.
The first prisoner was booked with this description: “Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on Thigh. Broad Mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labour. Received by Samuel R. Wood, first Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary …”
When inmates completed their sentences, they would pass through this hallway for the second time to reenter the outside world.
Today, the intake hallway is dilapidated with paint peeling off the walls.
At the end of the hallway is an open room with vaulted ceilings.
This space foreshadows the elaborate designs that the architect John Haviland used throughout the penitentiary.
At the centre of the prison is this room, which was designed to give a view straight down each cell block.
If a guard stood in the centre of the room and spun around 360 degrees, the guard could see down every cell block. Today, the room has been refurbished for tours.
Stepping into cell block one, I was instantly transported back to the 1800s.
In 1787, some thought criminals were victims of their environment and the only way to curb criminal acts was through solitude.
The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was formed to create a “house of repentance,” or a prison where each inmate never left his or her cell. The goal was to prompt inner reflection and to ensure regret or penitence for one’s actions. The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first prison in the world to do this.
The doors seen in the cell block today were actually installed much later. When the prison first opened, these doors were actually just small openings to pass food through so the inmate could live in solitude.
In fact, prisoners slept, ate, and went to the bathroom in their cells.
For 23 hours a day, the only light inmates saw light came through a small window in the ceiling.
The Eastern State Penitentiary became known for its vaulted ceilings that were made to resemble a chapel. The small skylight in the vaulted ceiling was meant to be a direct view of the heavens, but, in reality it was the inmate’s only connection to the outside world.
For one hour each day, inmates could walk through the door at the back of their cell and enter an enclosed space with an open roof.
The outdoor space was a cramped square with walls built up high. Even outside, the inmates did not come in contact with one another.
Most inmates did not interact with another person — other than guards — until they completed their sentence.
Instead of using corporal punishments on inmates like other prison systems, the Eastern State Penitentiary was meant to be more humane, encouraging prisoners to reflect on their behaviour in silence.
But in some ways, the new system harmed inmates even more. Since some terms lasted several years, many inmates had mental breakdowns, and some were even declared mentally insane.
This system of isolation as a correctional practice became known as the Pennsylvania System.
This system of isolation was implemented throughout the world after the Eastern State Penitentiary became famous for it.
I stepped inside one of the jail cells and the walls instantly felt as if they were closing in on me. I could not imagine staying in one for 23 hours straight.
People slowly realised that the Pennsylvania System of pure isolation was unbearable on the human condition.
Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842 and said, “The System is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.”
In 1913, the Pennsylvania System was abandoned and the isolation practices ended.
The prison started bunking two people in each jail cell so they could socialise.
As the years went on, inmate life began to emphasise socialisation. For example, prisoners were eating together in the dining halls by 1924.
The dining hall is located in cell block five.
Inmates were even allowed to hang out in barbershops, which were located in almost every cell block. Today, the rooms are empty.
While inmates would usually cut each other’s hair, they sometimes even gave the guards a new do. In fact, the guards often brought their families to the prison to get their hair cut as well.
There was also a synagogue on the premises so inmates could gather with people who practiced similar faiths.
The synagogue today has been remodeled and restored to its original look.
But violence could also be part of the day-to-day. Sometimes there were fights, riots, and even killings.
Guards used these mirrors to see down hallways to ensure every prisoner was behaving.
It became increasingly difficult to control the inmates as the number of prisoners began to increase over the years.
When the prison first opened, there were 250 prisoners. By 1930, there were 1,800 inmates serving time at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Standing in the abandoned hallways today, it’s difficult to imagine more than 1,000 people crammed into this prison.
To accommodate the growing inmate population, the prison built more cell blocks.
Eventually, the prison expanded to 15 cell blocks, up from seven.
In all, the Eastern State held 80,000 inmates throughout its time in operation, and some of those prisoners were famous.
The bare bed frames still stand in most of the jail cells, but today the doors are unlocked and open, unlike the way they were when the prison was in operation.
Al Capone was one of the best-known inmates to have served time in the prison.
From 1929 to 1930, the Chicago gangster Al Capone served eight months at Eastern State for concealing a weapon. His cell was dubbed “Park Avenue” because he enjoyed more luxuries than the other inmates did.
“The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk … On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish,” the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported in 1929.
Today, the jail cell has been refurbished to look as it did when Capone was serving his sentence. Peeking my head into the cell felt like jumping through time, and it was eerie – as if I just brushed shoulders with one of America’s most infamous criminals.
While Capone’s cell is refurbished, the rest of the prison still eerily stands in ruins.
Some parts of the prison are in such bad shape that I was not allowed access, like cell block 12.
From crumbling ceilings …
The hallways in each cell block were lit by sunlight pouring through the crusted windows and holes in the ceiling.
… to the broken furniture, the entire prison felt like it was haunted — not with ghosts, but with its dark past.
Broken beds, chairs, tables, cabinets, and toilets were littered throughout the prison as if each inmate left behind a piece of themselves.
As my tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary came to an end, I was left with a chilling feeling.
While the building closed in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary stands today as a monument to the American prison system. Though I didn’t see or feel any ghosts on my tour, I did leave feeling haunted by the way prisoners were treated, and I thought a lot about the prison system we have in place today.