Eastern State Penitentiary – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

Eastern State Penitentiary

World's first "penitentiary," meant to be humane, drove men insane. 


Thrust into the middle of urban Philadephia is what looks like a great castle, a massive and haunting building. However, these walls weren’t built to keep Crusaders and robbers out, but to keep them in. This castle is a prison.

Until this edifice was constructed, prisons had generally been commercial ventures, filled with prostitutes, booze, corrupt officials, and little to no order. Starvation, cold, disease, and violence often put an end to prisoners before they were even sentenced. Opened in 1829, Eastern State was designed by the “Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” as a new type of prison where order reigned and those housed within might have a chance to be penitent for their crimes. Eastern State was to be the world’s first “penitentiary.”

Compared to other facilities, Eastern State was a technological marvel and, at a cost of $800,000, one of the most expensive building projects of its day. At a time when President Andrew Jackson was still using a chamber pot, prisoners in Eastern State had their own private toilets. Inmates were served three hearty meals a day (usually boneless beef, pork, or soup and unlimited potatoes) and had their own private exercise areas. The cells each had skylights so that the divine wisdom of God might shine down upon those inside. In essence, Eastern State was a paradise compared to other prisons of the time. But despite all its material comforts, this “paradise” drove men mad.

Known as the “separate system,” part of what made Eastern State unique is that prisoners weren’t allowed to interact with other prisoners at all, in any way. They ate alone, they exercised alone, and they read the bible (the only book they were allowed) alone. They weren’t allowed to talk to each other or to the guards. On the rare occasions they were taken out of their cells, hoods were put over their heads. Guards even wore felt shoe covers so as to keep the prison as quiet as possible. Utter silence, utter solitude. It was meant to inspire penance; instead, it inspired insanity.

When Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842, he wrote, “The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow, and daily, tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Eventually, due to overcrowding and disapproval of the “separate system,” Eastern State changed into a more standard prison, known then as the “New York System,” in which inmates shared cells and were permitted to communicate.

The prison remained in use for 142 years, from 1829 until 1971, and housed such criminal luminaries as Willie Sutton and Al Capone (Capone was allowed a comparatively lavish cell with furniture, oil paintings, and a radio). Left abandoned for many years, it was narrowly saved from destruction, and in 1994 Eastern State re-opened its massive doors to the public. Left in a state of magnificent decay, anyone who finds themselves in Philadelphia would be well advised to pay a visit - and to be penitent.

The self-guided audio tour features interviews with former inmates and guards, and is narrated by actor and director Steve Buscemi. The penitentiary offers a number of special tours, including “prison uprisings,” Winter Adventure Tours, a Bastille Day celebration, and a Haunted Halloween tour.

Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.

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