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Visit the Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary

Most of our guests have never heard of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) when they come to Philadelphia. We highly recommend visiting this National Landmark that is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary.


revolutionary idea

Designed by John Haviland the Eastern State Penitentiary opened on October 25, 1829 and became quickly a model for more than 300 prisons all over the world. Its revolutionary idea was the policy of separate confinement, emphasizing principles of reform rather than punishment. The Penitentiary did not simply castigate, but was supposed to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of complete isolation from other prisoners, with labour. The proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behaviour and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

unique prison architecture

Man in Cellblock 7, which opened in 1836

This idea lead to a unique prison architecture. The 8 x 12 feet wide and 10 feet high cells were separated by a metal door and a wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the "Eye of God", hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching them. Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn't communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners would be out at the same time.

The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, radiating in a circle array from a octagonal centre tower from where the prison could be kept under constant surveillance. This plan by Haviland became known as the hub-and-spoke plan.

For the outside Haviland chose the Gothic revival style. This was also part of the original idea to get the prisoners to “open up to God”. It resulted in an impressive castle like appearance that seemed purposely to refer to the medieval times for everybody to see.

Central Rotundasystem collapse

But the policy of keeping prisoners in intense isolation, rather than leading to the spiritual actualisations and social reform it intended, induced significant mental illness among many of its prisoners instead. The whole system eventually collapsed due to overcrowding problems and starting in 1913 the Eastern State Penitentiary operated officially just as a congregate prison.

1970 the prison closed and was completely abandoned. A "forest" started to grow in the cell blocks and the building became home to many stray cats.

The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980 and intended to redevelop the area. There were several proposals what to do with it, including a mall, and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the old prison walls. In 1988 the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. And in 1994 the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours.

self guided tours 

Today the Eastern State  Penitentiary is open to the public as a museum twelve months a year. The offered tours vary with the seasons. From April to November the prison is open everyday from 10am to 5pm for self guided tours. And from June through August visitors can take advantage of the twilight hours on every Wednesday until 8pm. Every year in the fall the Eastern State Penitentiary becomes a massive Haunted House and draws visitor from all over the country for a unique Halloween experience.

To find out more about specific guided tours please visit the Eastern State Penitentiary website. If you show your student ID (or ISIC card) you will get $4 off the regular addmission or you can print a $1 off coupon by going here.

For directions from the hostel please click here.

Posted by Ines Assmann on 2010-06-04 11:47:12

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