Eastern State Penitentiary: History in our Neighborhood

by Sean Kelley

You may know Eastern State Penitentiary as the prison with the haunted house. But we’re also a historic site offering daytime tours every day, engaging the public in the history of this fascinating building, and, more and more, tackling issues in today’s criminal justice system.

Over 142 years, Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) held 75,000 inmates in 980 cells, originally designed around a strict solitary confinement rehabilitation approach that fell out of favor by the early 20th century. Revolutionary for its time, ESP’s radial design was copied by hundreds of prisons worldwide. (It’s also noted for having indoor plumbing and central heat before the White House.) The penitentiary’s vaulted, sky-lit cells held hard-boiled criminals such as famous bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and gangster “Scarface” Al Capone – although fine furniture and a radio made Capone’s stay relatively luxurious.

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 12.42.02 PMEastern State was closed in 1971 and sat abandoned for over 20 years. Now in a state of semi-ruin, the facility is open for tours every day, year-round. An audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi guides visitors through crumbling cellblocks, past empty guard towers, and into Death Row and the underground punishment cells. A series of short, interactive experiences also allows visitors to unlock a cell, open the massive front gate, learn to play Bocce, and more.

We are currently launching new programs to explore issues facing today’s criminal justice system. (America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, by far.) This year, nationally recognized penologists and educators will speak at Eastern State about race, poverty, and justice in the system. These discussions, called The Searchlight Series, will take place the first Tuesday of every month, are free and open to the public.

We value your opinion as we continue to grow. Please visit us for a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary, or for one of our Searchlight Series discussions, and share your honest thoughts with us afterwards. We want to hear from you about how we can make the story of American prisons today meaningful.

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