A city within a city, Eastern State Penitentiary is separated from the rest of Philadelphia by concrete walls 30 feet tall and eight feet thick. The penitentiary is situated among row houses and restaurants; a majestic sight for those gazing through their living room window or eating dinner at one of the many cafes across the street. The almost demolished institution is now a historic landmark, capturing over a century of Philadelphia’s history.
The most expensive building of its time, the floor plan was designed like a wheel, with the cellblocks as spokes and the central hub a lookout post for guards. The system made it convenient for guards to monitor all activity from one location. The first male prisoner arrived in 1829 and the first female prisoner arrived two years later.
Eastern State was the first prison to use the Pennsylvania System, a Quaker-inspired system of reformation focusing on solitary confinement. Inmates were restricted to conversation with chaplains and guards, remaining in their cells 23 hours per day. A doorway in each cell led to a small exercise yard surrounded by concrete walls to prevent contact between inmates and guards. While exercising, prisoners wore a hooded mask with no eye holes. Twenty inches of masonry separated one cell from the next. Accordingly, visitors were prohibited.
In the 19th century, most inmates were convicted for robbery, burglary, horse theft, forgery and murder. The average sentence was two years and there were no life sentences. Inmates entered their cells via doorways slightly over five feet high. Cells resembled dorm rooms: they were 8″ by 12″ and contained a bed, desk and a chair. A skylight in each cell was nicknamed “dead eye” and “eye of God” as it signified a light from Heaven. By the light of the sun inmates could read their only property – a Bible. Toilets were flushed daily. Baths were every three weeks. Poor plumbing caused the cellblocks to sour of human waste, spreading sickness and disease among the inmates and guards.
Required to practice a trade, inmates made clothes and shoes and were allowed two 30-minute breaks each day. These honest trades were believed to lead to penitence. Yet skeptics, including Charles Dickens who visited the site in 1842, believed isolation to be psychologically damaging and more severe than physical torture. Others believed it made inmates unfit to integrate into society upon release.
The Pennsylvania System ended in 1913 due to the realities of modern prison operations.
Other changes occurred in the early 1900s. The penitentiary saw its last female inmates. Women were transferred to State Correctional Institution Muncy, a new female institution. Meanwhile men bathed in modern showers. They ate together in a group dining hall. Cells were hot in the summer and cold in the winter causing some inmates to flood their cells as a means of cooling themselves. In 1928 Babe Ruth visited the penitentiary to play baseball with the inmates. By this time masks were no longer used, allowing inmates to see Babe and each other.
One year later, cellblock 1 housed Eastern State’s most famous alumni. Between 1929 and 1930, Al Capone spent eight months in prison for concealing a deadly weapon. Unlike the other inmates, he was allowed to have the comforts of home. “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. …” reports a 1929 article from the Philadelphia Public Ledger. His cell is restored to its former appearance, featuring a mahogany desk, beaded lamp and velvet linens.
Unlike the previous century, isolation was used for punishment instead of redemption. Cellblock 13 contained small windowless cells, while cellblock 14 contained underground cells without light or plumbing. The final cellblock, death row, was added in 1956. Men awaited execution while being isolated from guards and other prisoners. The inmate population reached its peak – 1700. Its original construction was designed to house 250 in solitary confinement.
The sixties saw the beginning of the end. Cellblocks were desegregated. Despite the change, city officials had considered demolishing the failed penitentiary for almost two decades. Eastern State closed in 1970, yet temporarily held inmates from another institution until the following year. Inmates were transferred to State Correctional Institution Graterford, 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Former mayor Frank Rizzo wanted to build a criminal justice center on the grounds. Other plans included a shopping center and condominiums. A group of historians, architects and preservationists formed The Eastern State Task Force and successfully urged the following mayor, Wilson Goode, to reject commercial development plans.
The 11 acres between Brown & Fairmont and 22nd & Corinthian have attracted international attention. Over 300 institutions worldwide have modeled after the Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement. Scenes from 12 Monkeys and Return to Paradise were filmed on the premises. The penitentiary’s intriguing and mysterious history draws over 65,000 tourists annually. During its 142 years of operation, more than 100 inmates escaped. Only one, Leo Callahan, was never recaptured. After threatening an unarmed guard at gunpoint, Callahan climbed over the 30-foot wall to his freedom. The imposing walls and bleak musty cells cause visitors to be grateful for theirs’.
Taking a tour of the historic grounds of the Eastern State Penitentiary is a must for the Halloween season. Tours are available Wednesday-Sunday. Tickets are $7 for students.
Terror Behind the Walls, the penitentiary’s Halloween attraction, is openly nightly for the rest of the month. Tickets range from $15-$25 depending on the night. The nighttime haunt fest tours the grounds, which are widely believed to be haunted. Call (215) 236-3300 or visit easternstate.org for more information.
Stephanie Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.