Philadelphia – Eastern State Penitentiary

This was one of the highlights of my trip to Philadelphia, a trip to the Eastern State Penitentiary. It was opened in 1829 and was designed to be a forward thinking new approach to prison design, with help being offered to prisoners rather than them just being punished. As usual with these things, eventually more prisoners were crammed into the prison and the initial pioneering strategies were mostly lost.

The exterior of the prison was though always designed to look austere and when it opened the building was some way from the city centre and stood out like a castle. Quite a scary castle….

The castle like protection is visible from the exterior of the prison, but it’s all fake. The slit windows in the main wall are just a front and the crenellations are just decorative.

The inside of the wall, with no slit windows showing through.

One of the numerous prison wings, the first ones were single storey but double storeys were added later on. The prison was closed in 1971 and the intention was to demolish it to build residential units or a shopping centre. It was left to go to ruin for two decades before a decision was made to turn it into a museum. The above photo shows one of the few sections which have been repaired, but the rest is being left.

One of the two storey prison wings.

Inside one of the cells and there were hundreds of these to look at. The closed off section at the back is what led into a small exercise yard, a pioneering idea which gave each prisoner an exercise area and they could even use part of it as a small garden. They were later all sealed up though when things got tougher. The cells all had toilets right from when they were constructed, which was well ahead of its time, and they actually had running toilets before the President of the United States as plumbing wasn’t added to the White House until 1833.

I thought this was a fascinating site and I spent nearly three hours here exploring everything. I managed to take nearly 300 photos, so at some point I’ll post more photos of the prison. I’m not usually a fan of audio tours, but this one worked well, a short introduction and then visitors could use them as they felt appropriate whilst they explored the prison.