Inside Eastern State Penitentiary

Inside Eastern State Penitentiary December 3, 2017 · 14 min. readDisclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shut its doors in 1970. A year later, in 1971, it would briefly reopen and house inmates from Holmesburg Prison after a devastating riot. After the prisoners were returned to Holmesburg, Eastern State would sit empty for over two decades. It would rot, decay and collapse. Trees and shrubs would grow into the structure and a clowder of cats would take residence. These hallowed halls would sit empty, the only noise being the chatter of startled birds and the trotter of feline paws.

The following decades would see various discussions of what to do with the building. Eventually, it was decided to preserve it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Although it officially opened for tours in 1994, attendants would have to sign a waiver and wear hardhats before entering until 2008. They had 10,000 visitors the opening year, a number of tourists not seen in the prison since 1858.

Family visiting at ESP

From 1829 to 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary underwent a variety of changes and transformations. This massive, sprawling, 11-acre complex was founded under the belief that solitary confinement was the cure needed to prevent criminals from committing future crimes. It was believed criminals who served in solitary confinement would turn to a higher power to reconcile with themselves for their crimes – hence feeling "penitent". To assist in this process, each cell was equipped with a slit window on the ceiling nicknamed "The Eye of God". It would be the only light source available to the inmate.

Hallways in ESP Hallways in ESP Hallways in ESP

During its conception, Eastern State Penitentiary's methods of imprisonment were the poster-child for the "Pennsylvania System". This system competed with the "New York System" which had inmates live and work together to work on relationship and community building. The New York System caught on throughout the United States, but the Pennsylvania System would catch on across the globe. From Europe to South America to Asia, scores of prisons modelled after Eastern State Penitentiary would pop up. Each believed solitary confinement was the key to healing criminals.

Hallways in ESP Hallways in ESP

Prisoners that moved around the prison had hoods placed over their head. They would enter through their own individual courtyard and then into their cell. Each prisoner could go into the cell for one hour a day, but never at the same time as their neighbouring inmates. Food was delivered through a "feeding hole" in their cell. Inmates were not to talk to or interact with the guards. For every hour of every day, the inmates were alone with their thoughts. Inmates that broke these rules were then punished by either being flogged, being branded by hot iron or drenched them with water and chained outside to freeze.

Eastern State Penitentiary was constructed to house 250 inmates. In 1931 it would open Block Three but by 1835 the prison had doubled in size and opened Block Seven. In 1877 four more cellblocks were added, and in 1911 a twelfth cellblock was added. By 1927 it would hold over 1,700 inmates.

Cells inside ESP Cells inside ESP

As years passed, The Pennsylvania System continued to have its critics. Many questioned if solitary confinement would actually lead to penitence, as it appeared to have the opposite effect. Instead of becoming peaceful civilians, these criminals would become even worse than before. It was believed being trapped in isolation would cause these people to become insane.  Even Charles Dickens, upon visiting the prison, said it was "rigid, strict and hopeless", and its effects were "cruel and wrong".

Cells inside ESP Cells inside ESP

In 1913 the prison was forced to give up solitary confinement all together. It was just not practical to house this many patients in isolation – especially with evidence mounting that isolation had undesired effects on both prisoner behaviour and their mental health.

Cells inside ESP Cells inside ESP

In 1917 the United States entered World War I and the government established 5 classes of men were to be sent to war. Able bodied civilians were in the first class and prisoners and ex-convicts were placed in the fifth class, with various types of men in between. As the war waged on, the United States send increasingly more men overseas to fight. Three hundred prisoners from Eastern State Penitentiary were sent to the battlefield, many experiencing active combat. One prisoner would perish on the battlefield – prisoner B6686. When the survivors returned home in 1918, they were awarded medals and pardoned for their crimes. One of the prisoners was quoted saying "Life's a funny thing after all, ain't it, warden? Here I go and get 15 years in jail for accidentally shoving a man up a railroad track, and then I get all these medals and decorations for killing two dozen men." The warden agreed.

ESP Military Plaque

Removing isolation allowed for more prisoners to live within the walls, but it also brought in more challenges. Women prisoners had lived there since 1831 without any problems, but in only 10 years after the removal of isolation of Eastern State Penitentiary, all women inmates were moved to Muncy. That same year the prison had one of its largest escapes. Leo Callahan and five other inmates scaled the walls of the prison with guns and escaped into the city below. Of the over one hundred inmates to ever escape the prison, Callahan was the only one to never be recaptured.

In 1927 Cellblock 14 was added. What was once a neat six-pointed star in 1829 had now become a winding monstrosity of cellblocks. It was at this time that the prison's population grew over 1,700. With the spike of growth came a variety of health problems, such as tuberculosis and widespread STDs. With two or three prisoners living in cells designed for one person, disease was rampant throughout the prison. Those that got sick were then sent to Cellblock 3 – the hospital cellblock. There they treated the patients, conducted surgeries and healed the injured. Inmates suffering from tuberculosis were placed in special cells with larger windows and fresh air, under the belief this would cure them from their illness. They also received special diets with high protein, which was thought to slow the symptoms. One end of the hospital was full of senior inmates who had spent their lives in the prison, waiting to die. Of all the cellblocks throughout Eastern State Penitentiary, Cellblock 3 had the most deaths. In the history of the prison, over 1,000 people would die within the prison walls.

ESP Hospital ESP Surgery Hospital room in ESP Hospital waiting room in ESP

In 1928 the prison held Al "Scarface" Capone for eight months. It is reported Capone lived in luxury, with his own private radio, a lamp, a writing desk, his own painting and a soft plush bed. However, other reports were that Al Capone had one or even two roommates and lived just like any other prisoner. Even if Al Capone lived alone, some stories suggest he never was actually alone in his cell. Guards and inmates both report Al Capone often screaming during the night, yelling at something to "get out" and "leave him alone". It was believed this was the ghost of Jimmy Clark, a gangster killed during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that Al Capone arranged. It is believed Clark terrorised Capone at Eastern State and would continue to follow him to freedom, to Alcatraz and eventually to his death.

Al Capone's Cell

During the 1930s the prison saw two separate riots, in which both cases cells were set ablaze by fires. The first riot occurred due to insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness and the second riot occurred due to low prisoner wages.

In 1945 the prison had its only successful prison escape. Clarence Klinedinst built a tunnel network from his cell underground and under the surrounding walls of the prison. He, along with twelve other inmates, escaped via this tunnel. Almost all of them were immediately captured.  

In 1961 Eastern State Penitentiary experienced its largest riot. On January 8th, inmate John Klausenberg tricked a guard into opening the cell of another inmate. The two men overpowered the guard, stole the keys and released over 800 prisoners. What was originally an escape attempt turned into a riot, with records being burned, phone lines being cut, and guards being stabbed. The prisoners planned to steal a truck and use it to climb over the walls of the prison. Upon attempting their escape, they were met by local police and a battle ensured. While no prisoners were killed, one suffered extreme head injuries, and a priest was called in to read his last rights. Fortunately, this prisoner would survive.

It was around this time discussions were made to close the prison. A decade later that's exactly what happened.

Today if you walk the halls of the prison you can step inside many different cells build in many different time periods. You can also see art installations, hear prisoner firsthand accounts and see relics from the century and a half the prison stood open for. There are over 50 stops on the tour, covering a variety of topics throughout the penitentiary such as employment, sexuality, religion and torture.

Art installation in ESP Art installation in ESP

(At the beginning of the article I talked about a clowder of cats. One of the art installations shows one of these cats mummified. I didn't want to post the picture without giving you a warning, so if you want to see it, click here.)

One of the most interesting locations on the tour is in the courtyard.  Here you will find a larger-than-life bar graph of incarceration in the United States throughout the last century. When the prison closed in the 70s, the United States had its lowest incarceration rate since the 1930s. Following its closure, a shift occurred, and the incarceration rate skyrocketed. The number of white inmates has fallen from the majority (56%) to only a third (36%). Meanwhile, Latino prisoners have increased from 5% to 21% and black prisoners have lowered from 41% to 31%. The graph also shows how other countries stack up to the United States in incarceration rates, showing there is no correlation between increased incarceration and abolishment or establishment of the death penalty. Across the globe, incarceration is decreasing, with the only exception being the United States.

The prison also talks about the rise of gangs in prisons. In 1985 only 3% of inmates reported being in gangs, and gangs were isolated to three states. Today, over 20% of prisoners report being part of a gang and every state report gang activity.

Mass incarceration in USA Mass incarceration in USA

Much like how The Eye of God gave prisoners the ability to reflect upon themselves, Eastern State Penitentiary's closing statistics have visitors reflect on themselves as well. The Pennsylvania System failed, but so has the New York System. Crime rates are dropping, but mass incarceration is rising. Is this a question of race? Is this a question of poverty? Or is it a question of lack of equal opportunity? Why have gangs become so popular? Where did the prison system go awry? These are the questions we must ask ourselves, long after we leave the crumbling halls of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Outside ESP

Don't forget to pin it!

Inside Eastern State Penitentiary Inside Eastern State Penitentiary

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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