Walking along 22nd and Fairmount, one can confuse Philadelphia for a European city. A large edifice stands on this block with soaring towers and menacing gargoyles could easily be mistaken for a gothic castle built to weather marauding invaders. These high walls, however, were meant to keep its residents from escaping. This is the Eastern State Penitentiary, a revolutionary prison system built in 1829.
The years following the American Revolution were marked by rapid innovation in democratic institutions as the new nation aspired to be a beacon for the free world. One such innovation was in the arena of prison reform. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Persons, convened by Benjamin Franklin, proposed a radical new idea – a prison system where the focus was not to punish, but to foster penitence among its inmates. The result was the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP,) one of the most expensive and expansive complexes of its time.
The ESP, designed by British architect John Haviland, was meant to promote real reform among its inmates. The model offered a distinct departure from the convention of corporal punishment, focusing instead, on inner reflection and spiritual growth. The hub and spoke design and the buildings menacing facades facilitated this process. Seven cellblocks radiated from a central hub or control area. Prisoners were put in solitary confinement in private cells, each equipped with heating, a flush toilet and running water – a luxury not yet accorded to then President Andrew Jackson in the White House. Prisoners’ path to inner fulfillment was ostensibly accomplished through divine communication (via skylights,) honest work (shoemaking, weaving) and exercise (each cell had an adjacent private yard surrounded by ten-foot walls.)
Some of America’s most notorious criminals made the ESP their home, including gangster Al Capone and robber Willie Sutton. The latter attempted an unsuccessful escape by digging an underground tunnel to the outside. These stories, restored murals and stabilized cellblocks can now be explored through interactive museum tours.
The ESP model, both in philosophy and architecture was emulated globally in over 300 locations, encompassing geographies as diverse as China, Russia and across the British Empire. While several nations considered this to be a modern, progressive approach, there were strong opposing viewpoints. Opponents argued that the thorough isolation from social contact was inhumane and caused debilitating mental impairment. This view prevailed and in its later years, the penitentiary was modified to allow increased interaction among the inmates. The ESP was eventually abandoned in 1913.
The ‘stabilized ruins’ were first reopened in 1994, when visitors were required to wear hard hats on the historic tours. Today, the museum is hailed as a top attraction in Philadelphia. According to Lauren Zalut of the ESP, the museum saw a record 21,000 visitors in July alone. Through programs such as Hands-on-History, visitors can get behind the scenes into spaces like the operating room and the underground punishment cells with an expert tour guide. The ESP is also considered to be a prime hotspot among haunted attractions. It has been featured on several TV shows attempting to interact with its paranormal inhabitants. ‘Terror Behind the Walls,’ the annual Halloween event attracts large crowds. This year, for the first time in the event’s history, participants can choose a route that involves direct physical contact with the role-playing actors. They maybe “grabbed, held back and even occasionally incorporated into the show.”
Prison system reform continues to be a hotly debated socio-political issue. The ESP offers meaningful insight and context to one of the oldest subjects in modern history – imprisonment and rehabilitation.
HOURS: Daily: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; last entry at 4:00 p.m.
ADDRESS: 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19130
TICKET PRICES: $14 Adults $10 Students & Kids (Age 7 – 12)
TERROR BEHIND THE WALLS (20th Sep – 2nd Nov) Prices range from $13 to $39 (please check the website for details.)