Exploring Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

Exploring Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is America’s most-historic (and some say most-haunted) prison!

Eastern State Penitentiary was designed with a neo-Gothic look to instill fear into those who thought of committing a crime.
Eastern State was designed with a neo-Gothic look to instill fear into those who thought of committing a crime.

This was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true remorse, in the hearts of prisoners.

Cells at Eastern State Penitentiary were constructed to allow prisoners to enter and exit their cells through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise.
One of the solitary cells at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, Eastern State Penitentiary was the most famous and expensive prison in the world when it opened in 1829.

Eastern State Penitentiary was designed by British architect John Haviland, one of the most notable architects working from Philadelphia in the 19th century.
The prison was designed by British architect John Haviland, one of the most notable architects working in Philadelphia in the 19th century.

The prison closed in 1971, and slowly descended into ruin over the next 20 years.

Entrance to Cellblock 5 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Entrance to Cellblock 5, abandoned since 1971.

Saved from the wrecking ball and now owned by a non-profit organization, Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a year-round museum and historic site.

Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a year-round museum and historic site.
The prison operates as a year-round museum and historic site.

Design of the Prison

Designed by British architect John Haviland, Eastern State Penitentiary has a hub-and-spoke look to it.

A lithograph portraying Eastern State Penitentiary in 1855, on display at the prison.

Cell wings radiated in a circle from a central guard room and tower, where the prison could be kept under constant surveillance.

The design for Eastern State Penitentiary became known as the hub-and-spoke plan which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating cell blocks.
The design for this prison became known as the hub-and-spoke plan, which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to radiating cell blocks.

Eastern State’s system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system”, used solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation.

A reproduction of what a prisoner's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary would have looked like in the 1800s.
Reproduction of what an inmates cell and possessions would have looked like in the 1800s.

It was thought that by placing inmates in a solitary cell with only a Bible for reading material, they would become penitent (hence the word “penitentiary”).

Standing inside a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Standing inside a solitary cell at the prison.

By 1913, overcrowding forced and end to the solitary confinement policy, and the prison was transformed into a more modern facility, with multiple inmates per cell and recreational team sports allowed.

View of the Philadelphia skyline from the exercise yard at Eastern State Penitentiary.
View of the Philadelphia skyline from the exercise yard, where inmates participated in team sports in later years.

The prison closed in 1971, with many of the prisoners and guards being transferred to Graterford Prison, 30 miles north of Philadelphia.

Eastern State Penitentiary sat abandoned for more than 20 years after it closed in 1971.
The prison sat abandoned for more than 20 years after it closed in 1971.

The property sat abandoned for more than 20 years, until it was purchased by a non-profit, stabilized to make it safe, and reopened as a museum and tourist attraction in 1994.

The goal of the non-profit that now owns Eastern State Penitentiary is to preserve the prison as a stabilized ruin.
The goal of the non-profit that now owns the prison is to preserve the prison as a “stabilized ruin”.

The prison is now designated a National Historic Landmark.

Eastern State Penitentiary is a National Historic Landmark.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a National Historic Landmark.

Touring Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is currently open for daytime tours every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day).

Eastern State Penitentiary's system of incarceration, dubbed the "Pennsylvania system", encouraged solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation.
The grounds are open for daytime tours every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Tickets can be purchased in-person or online – please check out Eastern State’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE for the current pricing and ticket availability.

The gift shop at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
The prison gift shop.

Included in the price of admission is an audio tour (narrated by actor Steve Buscemi) that allows you to listen to descriptions of what you are seeing at numbered stops around the prison grounds.

A barber's chair at Eastern State Penitentiary.
A barber’s chair.

Some areas have been cleaned up enough to allow tourists to walk through them safely.

Entrance to Cellblock 10 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Entrance to Cellblock 10.

Others are preserved in their abandoned state, and while you can see them through the bars, you can’t walk through them.

Upon its completion in 1929, Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States.
Part of the prison that is preserved in its abandoned state.

Some cells have been turned into art installations.

Some of the former cells at Eastern State Penitentiary have been turned into art installations.
Some of the cells have been turned into art installations.

On Death Row, the bars have been replaced with clear plastic tubes.

Death Row at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Death Row.

The prison’s greenhouse is in remarkably good shape.

The greenhouse at Eastern State Penitentiary.
The greenhouse.

As is this guard tower, although you cannot go up inside of it on your tour.

A guard tower at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
A guard tower at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

The Prisons Today exhibit takes a look at what the American criminal justice system looks like in modern times.

Prisons Today exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Prisons Today exhibit.

The exhibit raises some interesting questions and illustrates some harsh realities of what faces both inmates and guards/staff in today’s prison system.

An exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary about prison gangs today.
An exhibit about prison gangs today.

Al Capone at Eastern State Penitentiary

Al Capone is arguably the most famous prisoner ever housed at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Al Capone was one of the most famous prisoners to be incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Al Capone was one of the most famous prisoners to be incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary.

A reproduction of Capone’s rather lavishly-decorated cell is one of the highlights of the tour.

A recreation of Al Capone's "luxury cell" at Eastern State Penitentiary.
A recreation of Al Capone’s “luxury cell”.

It seems likely that Capone’s favorable living arrangements during his time at Eastern State Penitentiary were due to some hefty bribes being paid to those running the show!

Al Capone received special treatment and accommodations while serving 7 months at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Al Capone received special treatment and accommodations while serving 7 months at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary on Film

Eastern State Penitentiary has been the site of many film productions, including the 1995 flick 12 Monkeys, starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis.

Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys used Eastern State Penitentiary as the setting for a mental hospital.
Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys used Eastern State Penitentiary as the setting for a mental hospital.

Tina Turner also filmed a music video here, appropriately enough for a song on the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack.

On July 29, 1985 Tina Turner filmed her "One of the Living" video at Eastern State Penitentiary.
On July 29, 1985 Tina Turner filmed her “One of the Living” video at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Ghosts at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary has been the subject of numerous television programs and films about hauntings, including Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and MTV’s Fear.

Eastern State Penitentiary has been the site of many paranormal investigations into "hauntings".
Eastern State Penitentiary has been the site of many paranormal investigations into “hauntings”.

If you believe in the supernatural/paranormal, then it is certainly not implausible that with a history dating back nearly 200 years, this prison MAY have some strange vibes about it, to say the least.

The medical wing of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
The medical wing at Eastern State.

Final Thoughts

While I did not encounter any ghosts on my tour, the eerie beauty of Eastern State Penitentiary easily made this one of the most interesting places I’ve explored in 2022 (so far!).

The halls at Eastern State Penitentiary were designed to have the feel of a church.
The halls of the prison were designed to have the feel of a church.

I felt like the museum did a nice job balancing the need to make this place “safe” for tourists with keeping it just “ruined” enough to make it interesting.

The crumbling remains of a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia PA.
The crumbling remains of a prison cell.

It reminded me a lot of exploring the abandoned Cresson State Prison in Cambria County, and what that facility will likely resemble in the years ahead as it morphs into a bigger tourist attraction.

Razorwire and Tudor-style architecture at the former Cresson STate Prison in Cambria County.
Razor wire and Tudor-style architecture at the former Cresson State Prison in Cambria County.

Eastern State Penitentiary has been inspiring awe and fear (and probably some penitence) into people for nearly 200 years; I’d definitely put this near the top of your “must-sees” when visiting Philadelphia!

Eastern State Penitentiary became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide.
Eastern State Penitentiary became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide.

As I mentioned briefly, the Cresson State Prison in Cambria County is another former state prison that was abandoned and subsequently morphed into a tourist attraction.

A quiet afternoon in a cell block at the former Cresson Sanatorium in Cambria County PA.
A quiet afternoon in one of the cell blocks at the abandoned Cresson State Prison.

Rumors of hauntings and paranormal activity have made the abandoned Cresson State Prison yet another must-see location for those interested in the supernatural!

Inside the Grace Chapel at the abandoned Cresson State Prison.
Inside the Grace Chapel at the abandoned Cresson State Prison.

If the “old and abandoned” aspect of Eastern State Penitentiary is appealing to you, be sure to check out my article 30 Abandoned Places in PA You Can Legally Explore!

Sideling Hill Tunnel on the Abandoned PA Turnpike in September 2020.
Sideling Hill Tunnel on the Abandoned PA Turnpike.

Whether they were abandoned due to natural disasters or technological obsolescence, these fascinating spots around PA all have one thing in common – the Earth is slowly reclaiming them, and one day they will all be but distant memories.

Staring up at one of the massive Carrie Blast Furnaces during an industrial tour by Rivers of Steel.
Staring up at one of the massive Carrie Blast Furnaces in Pittsburgh.

Nearby Attractions

Visiting the Rocky Statue and Steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum is your guide to paying homage to Philly’s favorite fictional son, Rocky Balboa.

Visiting the Rocky Statue and Steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
The Rocky Statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

You’ll find both the Rocky statue and Rocky Steps on the southeast side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (5 blocks from Eastern State Penitentiary), both completely free to visit!

Standing at the bottom of the Rocky steps in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Standing at the bottom of the “Rocky Steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States!

Exploring Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were both signed here, and today you can take a guided tour of what is arguably the most important and historic site in the United States.

The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were both debated and signed inside this room at Independence Hall.
The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were both debated and signed inside this room at Independence Hall.

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Rusty Glessner is a professional photographer, lifelong Pennsylvanian, and creator of the PA Bucket List travel blog.