This post contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you book or purchase through these links. You can read my full disclosure policy here.Of the many things there are to do in Philadelphia, none is more unique than the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. While I have visited several different prisons in various destinations, I’m not sure any of them have been as eerie as Eastern State. On a most interesting flip side, its eerie walls also make it the most photogenic of all the prisons I’ve visited.
A photogenic prison. That’s not something you hear every day, is it? In all seriousness, the same spooky feel that makes the penitentiary seem haunted is also the one that makes the walls and structures seem to “come alive for the camera”. Hey, that’s what you get from this travel photographer! 😜
I’m sure at this point you’re wondering if I was temporarily possessed while taking this Eastern State Penitentiary tour. I promise nothing of the sort happened, but it was a completely different experience from any other.
About the Eastern State Penitentiary
In operation from 1829 to 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary or ESP is the world’s first penitentiary. Designed to inspire penance, it drove its prisoners insane instead.
Originally, ESP followed the system of separate incarceration where the prisoners couldn’t talk to each other or the guards. They did everything alone and if they left their cells, hoods were placed over their heads so they weren’t able to learn the layout of their surroundings. So instead of reflection on their wrongdoings, the inmates were said to have been driven insane.
At the time of its completion, the ESP was considered the most expensive public building ever constructed in the United States. It maintained the separate incarceration system until 1913 when it became a congregate prison until its closing in 1971.
The prison reopened to the public in 1994 as a museum conducting tours of its history.
Eastern State Penitentiary Tour
The self-guided audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi-can’t you hear that haunting voice now? Steve’s voice is the perfect choice to create the scene and set an eerie mood.
On average, the tour takes 1.5 to 2 hours depending on individual pacing and costs 14 USD for adult general admission.
Left: View of the guard tower from the inside walls
British architect John Haviland designed the prison giving it a neo-gothic look to inspire fear in those thinking about committing a crime. He drew his inspiration from 1780s prisons in England and Ireland.
Hallway where the audio tour begins
When the design was completed in 1836, it housed 450 prisoners.
Each cell was lit only by a single source of light usually a window or a skylight. This was considered the “Window of God” or the “Eye of God” in hopes that the light of God would shine down on the prisoners and help them to reflect on their crimes.
To me, the design of the lighting contributes to the prison not only feeling eerie but also gives it the perfect lighting to be quite photogenic. Anyone else agree?
Keep that bit of info in the back of your mind as you read the rest of this post.
The cell blocks were considered advanced and lavish for their time. Each cell had its own toilet with a uniquely designed system where every flush went straight to a central sewer. This prevented the inmates from sending messages to each other. The design wasn’t perfected on the first try and had to be redesigned a few times before proving successful.
Individual cells also featured faucets with running water and pipes up against one wall where hot water ran to act as central heating during winter.
Although no one seems to know for sure, speculation on why the doors are so small includes making it harder for the prisoners to escape, minimizing the risk of an attack on a guard as well as making a prisoner bow when they enter their cell.
The original design of the prison was “radial” calling for seven one-story cell blocks extending like spokes on a wheel (or sunbeams) from a central tower. This made it easier to monitor the prisoners in their individual exercise areas.
The entrances to cell blocks 2 and 3
As you may have guessed from the red cross on cell block 3, it was the Hospital Block. As of 1907, the block was dedicated entirely to healthcare and had its own operating room, recovery ward, kitchen, pharmacy, and lab. The second story was expanded to include x-ray, a treatment room for tuberculosis and a mental health area.
The entrances to cell blocks 10 and 11
Due to overcrowding, a total of 15 cell blocks were ultimately built with blocks 4-15 constructed with second stories. This is the downstairs of one of those two-story cell blocks.
And, this would be the view from the upstairs of that same cell block. Once again, notice the lighting and how it creates a haunting yet somewhat fascinating photo.
This is one of the outdoor recreational areas between the cell blocks. Originally during the separate system (also known as the Pennsylvania System), the prisoners had individual outdoor recreational areas with 30-foot high concrete walls. To prevent communication, the inmates’ recreation times were synced so that next-door neighbors were never out at the same time.
One of the corridors at Eastern State. Creepy!
Here’s another look up at what seems and looks like an intricately cool castle in Ireland but is in fact, one of the most famous United States prisons of all time.
Now, do you see what I mean? Quite fascinating, right? It’s one of the top things you can NOT miss when visiting Philadelphia! There just isn’t another prison quite like it (that I’ve visited) including Alcatraz which is probably the closest with a similar feel. However, Alcatraz isn’t nearly as “photogenic”. Back to that photogenic prison thing…ugh! 😂
After you finish your Eastern State Penitentiary tour, pair one of these unique places to eat in Philadelphia with your unique prison experience and make it a completely unique day! Also, I highly recommend where I stayed in Philadelphia for the level of service, especially the concierge.
Have you toured Eastern State Penitentiary? If so, what were your thoughts? How did it make you feel? If you haven’t been, would you want to visit?
‘Til next time…