Eastern State Penitentiary, once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, stands a barren ruin of its former self. This impressive complex pioneered changes in the American penal system, created a new method of inmate reformation, and served as a model for over three hundred prisons around the world. The prison endured 142 years of operation before being completely abandoned in 1971. Today, after years of neglect and isolation, the prison has reopened its doors to the public, a tangible testament to its history and the lives of those who were confined to its walls.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the United States underwent a series of governmental and infrastructural reforms intent on bettering the general welfare of the new nation. Some of the most radical changes came with prison reform. There was growing public concern about the condition and operation of American prisons—essentially holding cells that mixed violent offenders with petty thieves, men with women, children with adults. In 1787, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries in Public Prisons was assembled to address these issues and design a new prison/rehabilitation system.
Dr. Benjamin Rush proposed the idea of creating a prison system that promoted the complete isolation of prisoners, believing that lengthy solitude would result in a “spiritual awakening” from reflection and penitence (hence the word penitentiary). Rush claimed that through moral instruction, religious principles, and solitary confinement, rehabilitation could be achieved (under the assumptions that all human beings are inherently good and crime is a result of the environment). This correctional method would later develop into “the Pennsylvania System.”
In 1821, after nearly 35 years of petitioning the Pennsylvania State Legislature, construction for Eastern State Penitentiary was approved. British architect John Haviland was appointed to plan and construct the new prison. Haviland created an innovative layout: a wheel-and-spoke design with seven cellblocks radiating from a central surveillance hub. Each block contained one-person cells—separated by twenty inches of masonry—and individual exercise yards. The design was also revolutionary in that each cell would have access to central heating and plumbing, commodities that very few buildings had at the time. Haviland modeled Eastern State after Old World castles and fortresses with medieval gothic revival architecture, fit with crenelated 30 foot-high exterior walls and battlements, hoping to “strike fear in the hearts of men who wish to commit crimes.”
On October 25, 1829, following the completion of Cellblocks 1 and 2, Eastern State Penitentiary received its first prisoner: Charles Williams, a black farmer convicted of theft and serving a two-year sentence. Samuel R. Wood was the prison’s first warden. Construction continued over the next seven years, with Cellblock 3 being completed in 1831 and Blocks 4-7 in 1836. While the original design could house 256 inmates, developers added second levels to Blocks 4-7 late in construction, bringing capacity to roughly 450.
Eastern State was the most expensive building in the United States (costing over $750,000) and considered a modern marvel. Its architectural advancements and imposing stature drew the attention of foreign dignitaries, such as French Commissioner Alexis de Tocqueville, and local citizens. Believe it or not, Eastern State was a tourist attraction during its early years of operation. An estimated 10,000 tourists visited in 1858, which surpassed numbers for Independence Hall!
In 1913, the Pennsylvania System of incarceration was abandoned; however, the system had broken down considerably years prior. Eastern State underwent numerous expansion projects to accommodate a communal system of confinement, adding workshops, mess halls, and recreational areas. During this time, Eastern State saw its capacity increase to over 1500 inmates.
One of the most famous inmates to be incarcerated at Eastern State was “Scarface” Al Capone. Capone was arrested in Philadelphia on a concealed weapons charge and sentenced to the maximum one year in prison. He arrived at Eastern State in May 1929 as prisoner C-5527 and would serve eight months of his original sentence.
During Eastern State’s 142-year history, there were over 100 escape attempts, the most famous of which occurred on April 3, 1945. Clarence Klinedinst and William Russell, cellmates of Cell 68, formulated the plot. Klinedinst was a former plaster worker and spent nearly a year digging a tunnel that stretch from his cell to the other side of the main wall (the tunnel itself ended up being 15 feet deep and 97 feet long). In total, twelve inmates took part in the escape; however, all of the escapees were recaptured within a matter of hours. Klinedinst, who had two years left on his sentence, was given an extra ten for masterminding the attempt.
On January 10, 1961, another prison break was attempted, this time in the form of a riot. Prisoners from Cellblock 9 managed to distract and overpower the guard on patrol. The inmates then stormed the control room and unlocked Cellblocks 1 and 5. Ultimately, over 800 prisoners were released from their cells. Four penitentiary employees were taken hostage as fourteen inmates tried to escape through the prison garage. State troopers were called in within a matter of hours and used tear gas to put down the riot. Amazingly, no one was killed during the riot.
Following the escape attempts, the Pennsylvania legislature elected to shut down Eastern State Penitentiary. Deteriorating utilities, overcrowding, and aging facilities all factored into the decision. In 1970, Eastern State’s inmates were transferred to the Grateford State Correctional Facility. By 1971, the penitentiary was completely abandoned, left to crumble into ruin.
The City of Philadelphia purchased the property in 1980 and transferred it to the Redevelopment Authority in 1984. Developers and realtors proposed plans to repurpose the prison into shopping malls and apartment complexes. Fortunately, members of the Eastern State Task Force—a coalition of preservationists and historians—managed to save Eastern State from demolition in 1988. However, after nearly twenty years of desertion, the penitentiary was in a grave state of disrepair. Buildings were on the brink of collapse and Mother Nature had nearly reclaimed the entire facility. It wasn’t until 1991 that concerted preservation and stabilization efforts were taken to prevent further decay. Thanks to these continued restoration projects, much of the penitentiary has become accessible again. Today, Eastern State is a treasured tourist attraction that draws nearly 250,000 visitors per year, all eager to explore its hallowed halls.
Eastern State’s front façade and massive stone walls tower commandingly over the townhouses of downtown Philadelphia, an imposing sight for all those who pass. Inside, the sentiment is no different. Abandoned cellblocks and outbuildings stand in blanket silence. One can only imagine the amount of bustling activity this facility once saw. Tourists can gather a glimpse of the penitentiary’s distinct past by embarking on the self-guided audio tour “The Voices of Eastern State,” narrated by Steve Buscemi. First-hand accounts from three wardens and twenty-five guards and prisoners detail their daily lives in prison, while the voice of Nucky Thompson guides you though the halls of the historic complex.
The audio tour begins in Cellblock 1, which has been restored to its original 1830s appearance. Some of the cells have been refurbished, but a many of them haven’t been disturbed since the prison was abandoned in 1971, filled with tarnished bed frames, soot-covered tables, and crumbling plaster walls. The tour continues around the prison’s surveillance hub into Cellblock 7, where visitors can grab an impressive view of the block and its architecture from the balcony. The tour proceeds down Cellblock 4 and finishes next to the baseball field. In all, the main audio tour takes about 35-45 minutes to complete.
My first stop after the audio tour was Cellblock 3, the prison’s hospital wing. Prison administrators converted portions of the cellblock into laboratories, quarantine cells, and recovery wards during the late-19th century tuberculosis epidemic. Tuberculosis (TB) was the main killer of inmates at Eastern State. Close quarters and unsanitary conditions only promoted its spread. Additions such as the Solarium, tuberculosis yards, and hydrotherapy rooms helped slow the disease’s progression. In 1917, following another outbreak of the disease, Cellblock 3 was converted into a full-fledged medical facility. It featured an x-ray machine, psychiatry department, operating room, and a pharmacy.
Backtracking to the end of Cellblock 7, I stopped by Cell 68, site of the 1945 tunnel escape. While all indications of a tunnel are long gone, visitors can walk around the cell and read the archaeological investigation conducted by the prison shortly after the attempt. Around the corner from the exhibit is the Fleischer Synagogue, purportedly the first Jewish house of worship built in a US prison. It was built around 1923-24 and is named after Alfred Fleischer, President of the Eastern State Board of Trustees and a main contributor to the synagogue’s founding. Today, the building contains exhibits on the history of Jews at Eastern State and the restoration efforts preservationists undertook to save the structure.
Upon reentering the main compound, I came across the Catholic Chaplain Offices, adorned with religious mural painted by inmate Lester Smith in 1955. Down the hall from the chaplain offices is the junction of Cellblocks 8 and 9, nicknamed “Park Avenue” due to its rather elegant architecture. It's also the location of Al Capone’s cell. Capone managed to secure the comforts of home while serving his prison term, furnishing his cell with oil paintings, a radio, and fine wooden fixtures. Items similar to his still decorate his cell today.
While Capone was arguably the most infamous prisoner held at Eastern State, there are some other intriguing inmates worth mentioning. Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber was the leader of a Philadelphia murder ring that enticed women to kill their husbands with arsenic and collect their life insurance money. His outfit was responsible for at least 30 deaths. He entered Eastern State in 1942 with a life sentence. Victor “Babe” Andreoli was a convicted murderer who escaped in 1943 in the back of a delivery truck. He was killed in a shootout just a few weeks later. Leo Callahan escaped Eastern State in 1923 and is the only prisoner to never get recaptured. Callahan was serving a sentence for assault and battery charge when he and five other inmates got their hands on a pistol, held up unarmed prison guards, and scaled the prison walls with a makeshift ladder.
Finally, there’s “Slick Willie” Sutton, one of the most infamous bank robbers of the 1930s. He was handed a 25 year sentence in 1933 for attempting to rob the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. He tried to escape Eastern State five times, and played a hand in the 1945 tunnel escape. Following the failed attempt, Sutton was transferred to Holmesburg Prison. In February 1947, Sutton escaped Holmesburg and was on the run for the next six years. He was recaptured in New York and detained in Attica State Prison where he remained until December 24, 1969. He died in Florida at the age of 79 on November 2, 1980.
The room adjacent to Capone’s displays an exhibit on the evolution of prison gangs around the United States and at Eastern State. In the early 1920s, Warden Robert McKenty appointed four inmates to represent the interests of the prison population and communicate their concerns to prison officials, thinking it would teach discipline and responsibility. It actually did the opposite. The four appointees abused their power to run drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes through the prison (among other illegal activities). Their coalition grew and became known as “The Four Horsemen” prison gang. By 1923, the gang had a stranglehold on Eastern State, controlling mail privileges, communal areas, and corrupt officials. Things got so bad, that McKenty had to resign from his position as warden. To combat the gang, prison administrators transferred the original four inmate representatives out of the penitentiary and installed new security measures to keep out contraband. Slowly but surely, the Four Horsemen faded from existence.
Back outside on the Baseball Field, there are two exhibits that examine the history and effectiveness of justice systems in the US and around the world. First is the Big Graph, which displays 1) the growth of incarceration in the US after 1900, 2) racial breakdown of prisoners, and 3) comparison of US imprisonment rates to other countries. The numbers are quite staggering. Since 1970, imprisonment rates have jumped over 450% and the United States leads all nations in the world with 700 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. In addition, racial minorities are incarcerated at rates disproportionately higher than whites.
The second contemporary exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, displays current prison conditions and demographics in the US, their trends, and how they have changed. It addresses the reality that, even though violent crime rates have remained relatively the same, imprisonment rates have drastically increased. Clearly, this is due to a number of interconnected and complex factors (such as socioeconomic status, race, policy-making, etc.), but the exhibit opens the dialogue on these issues and encourages constructive debate and reflection on our criminal justice system.
Around the corner from the contemporary exhibits are Cellblocks 11, 14, and 15. Cellblock 14 opened in 1927 and housed juveniles and first-time offenders. At least 850 children (ages 11-17) were imprisoned at Eastern State during its history. Beneath Block 14 is The Hole (“Klondike”): four punitive isolation cells with no sunlight or plumbing used to punish unruly inmates. Cellblock 15—known as “Death Row”—was completed in 1959 and housed some of the most violent and disruptive offenders in the prison. While no inmates were executed at Eastern State, those handed death sentences were held on the second floor of the block and transferred to the Rockview State Correctional Facility shortly before their judgement day.
Dispersed throughout the penitentiary are numerous art installations that reflect perspectives on the criminal justice system and the history of Eastern State. Two of my favorites are Apokaluptein16389067:II by Jesse Krimes in Cellblock 8 and Specimen by Greg Cowper in Cellblock 9. Apokaluptein is a surrealist landscape reflecting the artist’s own time behind bars. Krimes spent nearly six years in prison for drug charges and created this 39-panel exhibit out of bed sheets, newspaper, and hair gel. Cowper’s Specimen is inspired by an Eastern State prisoner’s rare collection of moths and butterflies. His exhibit displays a collection of over 500 entomological specimens (all of which are found on the prison grounds), including 150 species of insects and invertebrates.
The film industry has also been inspired by the prison’s intriguing past and decrepit appearance. Some blockbusters have been filmed at Eastern State, including 12 Monkeys (1995), Return to Paradise (1998), and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
Out of the 80,000 inmates imprisoned during Eastern State’s history, over 1,400 perished behind its walls, which begs the question: is Eastern State haunted? Many paranormal investigators, such as Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, have visited Eastern State in the past and have come up with some substantial evidence suggesting that it is haunted. While I didn’t experience any paranormal activity during my visit, there are certainly a few areas around the prison that gave me the creeps. As an optimistic believer in ghosts, I tend to think there are some residual spirits still roaming the halls of Eastern State.
My visit to Eastern State Penitentiary was unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. The sheer scale of the complex and its associated history is positively overwhelming. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eastern State is its attention to prisoner lifestyles. In history class, you’re prompted to remember names, dates, places, causes and effects, but seldom do you analyze the daily routines, challenges, and environments of the studied populations. Not only does Eastern State do an amazing job of addressing these significant historic/sociological facets, it thrusts the visitor into the environment for themselves, creating an unforgettable interactive experience.
Explore the Prisons Today Virtual Tour
Read more about Eastern State in this 5-page report or read the 571-page history: Volume 1 and Volume 2
Watch the Buzzfeed Unsolved episode on Eastern State!
View some of the Research Resources on Eastern State's website
Check out Eastern State Penitentiary by Francis X. Dolan (2004) on Google Books!