Eastern State Penitentiary

Radical 19th century prison designed to create social change

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Eastern State Penitentiary

Credit: Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary

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The Experience

Eastern State Penitentiary set the standard for penal reform, with its soaring, castle-like Gothic architecture and its founders’ Quaker-inspired belief that solitary confinement could reform criminals. The 11-acre prison even had central heat, running water and flush toilets before the White House! A Who’s Who of the underworld – bank robber Willie Sutton, who staged a breakout in 1945, and Al Capone, who furnished his cell with antiques, rugs and oil paintings – both served time here.

Tours include a look at life inside the prison’s historic cell blocks, Al Capone’s restored 19th-century cell, stories of inmate escapes, and critically acclaimed art installations. The annual “Terror Behind the Walls” tours – running select nights from September until November – are the region’s premier Halloween event!

History

When Eastern State opened in 1829, visitors from around the world marveled at its grand architecture (John Havilland) and radical philosophy. The experiment, to reform criminals through strict isolation, soon became a model for prison design world wide. An estimated 300 prisons on four continents are based on Eastern’s distinctive “wagon-wheel” floor plan. Once the most expensive building in the USA, Eastern State was finally abandoned in 1971 after 142 years in use. It is a National Historic Landmark.