When you list out places to visit on a trip to Philadelphia it’s worth considering The Eastern State Penitentiary.
A city rich in history known for the Declaration of Independence, The Liberty Bell and the famous Philly Cheese Steak is not without dark history of controversial practices of prison system – even for its time.
The Eastern State Penitentiary (1829-1971) is considered one of the world’s first real penitentiaries.
Children, women and men were held together and often a mix of misdemeanor and murderers were placed together in one cell before their trial. You could imagine the horrors that inmates had to endure. Rape and robbery was a common occurrence because of these conditions.
Walking on the grounds of early spring/late winter of March you can feel the cold penetrate the soles of your feet through your shoes and creep up numbing the back of your heels. Visitors often come to the center circle for bit of heat from mobile units before continuing the long tour. There’s hardly any heat here today and there sure wasn’t any heat when the penitentiary was operational and held prisoners. You can imagine the difficulties of those unfortunate enough to be here. Water seeps through the cracked walls and drips off the ceiling, sometimes you have to step past the falling droplets in order to avoid getting wet. The atmosphere here is quite distinct and true to its nature…incarceration!
The architect behind the penitentiary, John Haviland, found inspiration from prisons and asylums from the 1780’s of England and Ireland. The neo-Gothic look is intended to instill fear into those who thought to commit a crime.
Oddly enough, the solitary confinement of the cells were not just for punishment, but also for “spiritual reflection” apparently. It was hoped that isolation would force inmates to reflect on their crimes and they would truly penitent.
With time, however, this assumption proved to be wrong.
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment…inflicts upon the sufferers…I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body – Charles Dickens, 1842 tour of Eastern State Penitentiary
On that note, Al Capone spent nine months here in the famous cell block 7. I can’t confirm whether his exact living condition reflects those of his peers at the penitentiary. Here’s a look inside the notorious crime boss’ jail cell as is displayed today.
Known as the Pennsylvania System which emphasized solitary confinement to foster patience and reformation, it was in competition with the New York System which included forced labor with silence at all times. At the time the New York system dominated the prisons in the United States while much of the world embraced the Pennsylvania System.
As you continue the tour you notice a few art installations inside some cells. It definitely changes the atmosphere from a total dark and dingy place to something with a touch life.
For a bit of comic relief…there’s also the story of Pep the black labrador. He got a life sentence at the penitentiary in 1924 for killing the governor’s cat. But as the story goes, he was framed for murder. The whole story was made up by a newspaper reporter to get a buzz going. Shortly after the governor received thousands of letters from the public – probably demanding the release of the dog. The reality is that Pep was a gift to the Penitentiary to help rehabilitate inmates.
Overall this historic site is definitely something worth seeing if you find yourself visiting Pennsylvania. The hours of operation is between 10PM-5PM 7 days a week.
Last but not least here’s a minute long video tour of the place, enjoy: