Eastern State Penitentiary

Recently I went to visit my friend Leanne in Philadelphia. She’s a Louisiana native who moved to PA a few years ago, and she invited me to come see the city before she leaves it to move back to Louisiana permanently. I love traveling – LOVE it – and I have yet to visit a place I’ve regretted seeing, but I enjoyed Philadelphia even more than expected. There was so much to see, from Independence Hall to Betsy Ross’s house to the oldest Italian restaurant in the country. The city is very walkable, which I liked, and we covered about 20 miles in three days. When asked what my favorite thing to see was, I respond with Eastern State Penitentiary, not because it’s inherently better than the other attractions, but because it’s so different from anything else I have seen.

Eastern State Penitentiary from Fairmont Avenue

Eastern State Penitentiary is in the middle of Philadelphia, across the street from bars and restaurants, an easy walking distance from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Rocky, anyone?), and two miles from where the Declaration of Independence was signed. One minute you’re looking at the house where The Sixth Sense was filmed, and the next you’re faced with an imposing structure. Built in the 1820’s, the outside was made to resemble European castles and fortresses, with 30-foot walls and watchtowers at the entrance and on the corners. It was all a facade, though – the battlements and the windows on the front wall are fake. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the planners of this penitentiary, said:

“Let the avenue to this house be rendered difficult and gloomy by mountains and morasses. Let the doors be of iron; and let the grating occasioned by opening and shutting them extend a sound that shall deeply pierce the soul.”

The philosophy behind what was the most expensive  and famous prison of its time – and what many prisons later would be modeled on – was that fear, solitude, and silence would rehabilitate criminals, that this place would “inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.” Like so many ways of dealing with criminals, this prison was built with good intentions but entirely missed the mark.

It is important to establish the difference between jail and prison. Jail is a place usually run by local government, and its purpose is to hold individuals waiting for trial or waiting for sentencing. In the 18th century, jails were overcrowded, chaotic, and disorganized. They still can be today, though less so. Jails in the 18th century, and even now, aren’t meant to punish; they are a waiting place for punishment. Prison, on the other hand, is where punishment happens. So, when Eastern State Penitentiary was built, the idea was to create an environment where one would become truly penitent.

Cell restored to its original condition

The cells are narrow, and the doors are built low so that prisoners had to stoop to go in and out. Each cell has its own private yard, walled, so that prisoners couldn’t see each other. What the cells lack in width they make up for in height; ceilings are tall and arched, resembling a chapel, with a skylight in the middle – perhaps the eye of God looking down on the inmates. When prisoners were transferred to and from their cells, they were hooded, so that they could not be recognized nor could they get a sense of the layout of the prison. Inmates spent 23 hours a day in their cell, and 1 hour in the yard, broken up into two thirty-minute segments. Prisoners were allowed to speak only to the chaplains and the guards. Inmates did not have access to books (except the Bible), did not receive letters from home, and did not see visitors.

Cell after 20+ years of not being used

Even after solitary confinement was done away with, the prison was, at its height, filled to capacity. In fact, the last several cell blocks (out of fourteen total) were built by inmates to alleviate overcrowding. In 1971 the prison closed, and for over 20 years sat mostly abandoned. In 1994 the prison opened to the public after being declared a historic sight, though the exhibits inside are ever-growing and have changed significantly even in the last five years. Directors of the site do not plan to restore the prison in its entirety; their goal is “a stabilized ruin.” This means they have stopped further deterioration and made the building accessible and safe, but much of it has been left to its dilapidated condition. Specific sections have been restored or converted into exhibits, such as Al Capone’s cell and the Jewish synagogue. I spent hours in this place, wandering the halls, taking in the exhibits, listening to the self-guided audio tour, ending up in an exhibit called “Prisons Today.”

Al Capone’s cell (notably different from the rest, but that’s a separate blog post)

This exhibit is powerful. From the start, visitors are asked, “Have you ever broken the law?” One arrow points left (yes), the other, right (no). The question is a test of honesty that one must take in order to see anything else in the room.

A film on the history of prison policy in the United States plays in an adjacent area, with an ever-growing ticker of the number of inmates over the years. The ticker never stops moving. The facts are abrasive, the numbers, striking.

Americans incarcerated more of their citizens per capita than any other nation.

By 2013,  one out of every 28 American children has a parent in prison or jail.

There are 2.2 million U.S. citizens in prison or jail.

As of 2015, one in three Americans have been arrested by age 23.

At least 70 million Americans have a criminal record.

Sixty-five percent of men in prison are dads. Seventy-five percent of women in prison are moms.

More than 600,000 people leave U.S. prisons every year.

This exhibit confronts visitors with a very uncomfortable truth: prison is popular in the United States, but has also “disproportionately impacted poor and disenfranchised communities,” and, in many ways, has not been proven to be entirely effective at deterring crime. The prison population is growing, but not because crime is increasing.

These numbers may not mean much to those who are not part of them, but since I became a part of these numbers when I was fourteen years old, they mean a great deal to me. When a close family member went to prison, I had no context, no frame of reference, no coping mechanisms at my disposal. In my world, prison didn’t happen to middle-class white people (and it still doesn’t, at least not as often, compared to other groups), and I was discouraged not to talk about it. It was a secret I was asked to keep for a very long time, one that changed my life and became too heavy to bear. I spent many holidays filling out visitor forms, walking through metal detectors, visiting with family under strict guidelines and within certain hours, and always in crowded rooms surrounded by other inmates and their loved ones. What I experienced visiting prison was not nearly the same as what inmates experience living in prison, but it still changed my life, and it formed who I am today.

Walking the halls of Eastern State Penitentiary made me feel small.

Any other day, in any other place, my story is just that – mine – and it’s so different from the stories of many around me. Inside those walls, however, I am one of many.

I am a member of a society that imprisons more people in the world.

I am one mistake, one poor choice, one injustice away from being a prisoner.

I am the child of a (former) inmate.

I am a number in an exhibit.

I am Eastern State Penitentiary.

For further exploration:

“Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty (spoken word poem)

“Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You” by Shaka Senghor (TedTalk)

Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson (children’s book)

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin (nonfiction book)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (novel)


“Eastern State Penitentiary.” Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, www.easternstate.org/.

“Eastern State Penitentiary.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Apr. 2019,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_State_Penitentiary#Architectural_significance.

“Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Audio Tour Script.” Eastern State Penitentiary, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., 10 May 2019, http://www.easternstate.org/sites/easternstate/files/inline-files/Audio Tour Transcript 2019 FINAL.pdf.

“FAQ: What Is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?” Prison Fellowship, Prison Fellowship, 2019, www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources/in-prison/faq-jail-prison/#.

Higgins, Melissa. Night Dad Went to Jail: What to Expect When Someone You Love Goes to Jail. Picture Window Books, 2013.


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