“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails” -Nelson Mandela


When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, it turned the US prison system on its head. It was the first “penitentiary”, where prisoners were removed from society and would repent. The Quaker philosophy encouraged order, solitary confinement, and, above all, silence. Eastern State’s management wanted to create an environment of strict order and conformity, giving inmates the opportunity to dwell on their mischievous ways and come out the other side as reformed individuals.


No expense was spared bringing this penal facility to fruition. It was one of the most expensive development projects of the early 1800s, costing the US taxpayer $800,000. Prisoners enjoyed state-of-the-art facilities, with running water, central heating, personal toilets, private outdoor exercise yards, and three meals a day of beef or pork.


However, for all its luxuries, Eastern State Penitentiary was nothing short of hell on earth for its early inhabitants. They were each provided with a Bible, the only source of stimulation in an otherwise barren and empty cell. Interaction between prisoners was absolutely forbidden. The private exercise yards and meals delivered directly to the inmate’s cell meant that prisoners rarely laid eyes on another inmate. On the rare occasions they left their cell, hoods covered the prisoner’s heads, limiting their vision, and preventing even the most primitive forms of human interaction.


The silence was deafening. Guards wore shoe covers to prevent the inmates from hearing their footsteps. The logic was that with utter silence, prisoners would have time to study the Bible, meditate on their crimes, and amend their villainous ways. However, instead of producing reformed citizens, the silence spawned insanity.


Eastern State Penitentiary’s model drew international recognition and governments from all corners of the globe visited Philadelphia to marvel and provide inspiration for their own replicas. By 1858, the prison had more than 10,000 visitors a year. Charles Dickens toured the prison in 1842, concluding that the rigid system of solitary confinement was “cruel and wrong”.


Ultimately, in 1913, the system of solitary confinement would be abandoned. After witnessing the insanity and madness that the “separate system” produced, the public appealed to the prison to reform its ways. Overcrowding was also becoming a problem, and each inmate receiving their own cell was inefficient in comparison to the space-saving “New York model” where prisoners were in shared cells.


Eastern State Penitentiary had its share of notorious criminals. In 1929, Al Capone spent eight months in the prison. According to reports from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Capone’s power and influence secured him a lavish cell with a polished desk, hanging paintings, a radio, and a bright desk lamp.  Today visitors can see a replica of how Capone’s cell was laid out.


al capone cell eastern state

A replica of Al Capone’s cell visible in the prison today.

The prison closed in January 1970 and remained empty until 1994, when the City of Philadelphia opened the building to the curious public. Today, visitors can walk the crumbling halls of America’s first penitentiary, with many of the cells sitting exactly how they were left when the iconic building closed its doors in 1970. Actors bring the cellblocks to life, describing the daily life of the 70,000 prisoners that came through its cells, and those that never left.


Visit the official website for more information and tickets.


Al Capone’s cell from Pixabay by hsvbooth


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