Pennsylvania, United States

Eastern State Penitentiary

October 31 – November 5, 2019 

Our next site on Friday was the Eastern State Penitentiary, which used to be the most famous and expensive prison in America.

Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students and children when purchased online or at the Philadelphia Visitor Information Center, and a few dollars more purchased at the door. Admission includes an audio guide which is about an hour’s worth of material and brings you through major sites. Then, you are able to go through on your own.

We spent almost three hours there before they closed and told us we had to leave as we were still walking around (whoops), and we could’ve spent hours more there. It was super intriguing, and there are so many exhibits. There’s an online 360 tour that can be viewed here.

ESP opened in 1829 and was the first of its kind intended to genuinely induce penitence (“true regret”) in criminals. The architect, John Haviland, believed that the building should “strike fear into the hearts of those who thought of committing a crime.” While prisons at the time tended to use physical violence, this prison model intended to end this type of punishment and rather institute measures to force prisoners to reflect on their crimes and have that sense of true regret.

They used punishment measures like isolation and sensory deprivation, such as no light or sound. Its model was controversial and was based around “confinement in solitude with labor.” The type of building and model was soon used around the country. This type of prison system was referred to as the Pennsylvania System. The alternative model was referred to as the New York State’s Auburn System. People from all over the world visited ESP to learn about the model and institute it when developing new prisons. There was significant opposition, which lead to the eventual abandonment of the model slowly.

Most of it is within the walls of the prison with almost completely original ruins or some are mildly renovated. There are some separate exhibits like “Prisons Today.” There are also artist exhibitions spread throughout. You get to visit cells – some are complete ruins and some are renovated to look how they would’ve at the time – as well as areas such as the hospital, the death row area, and Al Capone’s cell (who spent eight months in the penitentiary in 1929).

Shaped like a pinwheel, over time, more cell blocks were added in between, with the last one being Cellblock 15 (Death Row) in 1956. In 1913, the Pennsylvania System stopped and the prison used more traditional (and less cruel) measures of criminal justice and imprisonment. For example, in 1924, inmates were allowed to eat together in a group dining hall for the first time. At its height in 1926, it held 1700 inmates. Finally, in 1970, ESP (now named the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia) closes and has been deemed a National Historic Landmark. It had been operating for 141 years.

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Before renovation

One of the main exhibits is called “The Big Graph” which is a 16-foot tall sculpture analyzing data about multi-country incarceration rates over time.

There is also “Prisons Today,” which is a fairly in-depth exhibit around the United States and its criminal justice and prison system. It goes into issues such as the War on Drugs, as well as issues of class, gender, and race. As of 2017, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has defined their purpose as preserving history and also addressing and interpreting criminal justice reform in the United States – and globally. This is primarily addressed in the exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which opened in 2016.

Friday Evening

To finish up the night, we headed out to a club for a second attempt at a decent evening out. I can’t even remember the name of the club, but it was a good time (super pricey though), and there was a cool local band covering hits. Also, side note, this photo with Kristina has random girls in it who jumped in on our photo, so no, I don’t know these people.