OPERATION TIME: 1829 to 1971
STATUS: Open as a tourist destination
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania opened in 1829 with some of the USA’s most infamous criminals entering the facility over the course of its operation (such as Al Capone and Willie Sutton).
The prison was designed by John Haviland, and it was considered the world’s first “true” penitentiary, even despite the fact that Walnut Street Jail (built in 1776) was dubbed a “penitentiary” in 1790. The Eastern State Penitentiary opened on October 25th, 1829. A revolutionary system of incarceration called the “Pennsylvania System” mandated that each of the wardens to visit each inmate once a day, while the overseers would visit them three times a day as a form of rehabilitation.
The new system was against the Auburn System (also called the New York System), which forced prisoners to work together in silence with the threat of physical punishment if they acted poorly. However, the United States favored the Auburn System. Even despite this, the Pennsylvania System floor plan and solitary confinement system became the model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
Initially, the cells were only accessible from the small exercise yard along the back of the prison. This eventually became an impractical method, and the cells were modified to allow prisoners to enter and exit through metal doors that were covered by wooden doors to help rid of excess noise. The halls were made to have the feel of a church to allow the prisoners to have a higher morale.
Some people believe that the doors were designed so prisoners would have trouble escaping, minimizing the chance of the attack on a security guard. Others say that the small doors were built to make the prisoners bow upon entering their cell. The prison was religiously inspired, and the cells had a single skylight that represented the “Eye of God”, suggesting that prisoners were always being watched by God.
Prisoner exercise was scheduled so that there could be no two prisoners next to each other at the same time. The exercise yard was divided for individual exercise, and was enclosed by high walls so that the inmates could not communicate. The inmates were allowed to garden and keep pets in their yards. When prisoners left their cells, their accompanying guard would put a hood on their heads so the other prisoners would not recognize them.
Compared to their times, the cells were rather advanced when it came to accommodations, featuring a faucet, running water, and a flush toilet, along with central heating. Guards would come by twice a week to flush the toilets.
Originally, the prison was going to have seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time the third cell block was complete, the prison had gone past its capacity. All of the other cell blocks received two floors. Cell blocks 14 and 15 were built quickly due to overcrowding, and the construction and design were by prisoners. Cell block 15 was used for the worst behaved inmates, and guards were not allowed in.
In 1924, Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania, sentenced his dog, Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog”, to serve a life sentence at the penitentiary after the canine “murdered” the governor’s wife’s prized cat. As seen in his mugshot, Pep was assigned an inmate number, #C2559. It is rumored that the dog was imprisoned as a way to increase inmate morale.
A major escape plan was put into effect by twelve inmates (including Willie Sutton) on April 3rd, 1945. It involved the inmates digging an undiscovered 97-foot tunnel under the prison wall over the course of a year. During the 1930s, other inmate tunnels were discovered, however, they were never completed.
In 1966, the Eastern State Penitentiary became a National Historic Landmark. Five years later in 1971, the prison shut down its operation, and many of its prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, about 31 miles northwest of the penitentiary.
On numerous occasions following the City of Philadelphia purchasing the property, there were proposals to turn the prison into a shopping mall or a luxury apartment complex. The “abandoned era” (1971 – late 1980s) was when the prison was in its worst condition, featuring a “forest” of trees growing within the prison’s outside region and becoming home to many stray cats.
The Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force petitioned to have Mayor Wilson Goode to stop the redevelopment in 1988, and they proved successful. By 1994, the prison opened to the public as a museum, and featured historical tours. Every Halloween, the prison features an event called “Terror Behind the Walls”, which features a number of attractions.
It is believed by many that the prison is haunted, with records from as early as the 1940s. Both inmates and officers alike have reported paranormal activity, including Al Capone. The number of sightings at the penitentiary have increased since 1971. TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) even captured footage of what they believe is a ghost.
Many of the ghosts are believed to be of inmates who were beaten to death, executed, or committed suicide. One of the most recurring spirits is that of an inmate who murdered 27 people while attempting to escape. Strange shadows, apparitions, and noises have been known to occur.
In Popular Culture
- The PlayStation 2 game, The Suffering, was inspired by the prison.
- The music video for punk rock group Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” was filmed at the Eastern State Penitentiary.
- The 1995 film Twelve Monkeys used the Eastern State Penitentiary as a mental hospital
- In 2000, Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory used the prison as its many setting.
- Paranormal shows Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and MTV’s Fear have visited the penitentiary.
- An episode of Cold Case entitled “The House” featured a murder after an inmate escape. In the show, the prison was named Northern State Penitentiary.
- On June 1st, 2007, Most Haunted Live! investigated the prison.
- Parts of the prison were used in the filming of Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in June, 2008.
- A history book entitled Eastern State Penitentiary: A History was released in September, 2008.
- The soundtrack to the 2012 film Alpha Girls was recorded inside the prison.
- Forgotten USA. “Eastern State Penitentiary,” www.ForgottenUSA.com
- Wikipedia. “Eastern State Penitentiary,” www.Wikipedia.org