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Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

  - darkometer rating:  5 - 
A large former prison and an imposing hilltop landmark in Philadelphia, USA. One of the most significant historic prisons in the world that can be visited by tourists, this is a premier dark tourism destination. Regular self- guided visits can be augmented by various special guided tours at no extra cost. A superb service!  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations



More background info: The historical significance of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is immense. At the time it opened in 1829, it was the largest public sector building in the USA. Its architectural layout in the form of a "wagon wheel" became the benchmark for the construction of hundreds of prisons in its wake. The term wagon wheel is, however, only partially correct as a descriptive term – it refers to the seven cell blocks that radiate from a central "surveillance hub" in the centre, but the surrounding prison walls form a square, so not exactly a perfect "wheel" by any standards.
Moreover, ESP was the first true full-scale penitentiary. And it was a watershed in the history of the treatment of prisoners. Instead of physical punishment, convicts were put in isolation cells where they were supposed to reach "penitence" (i.e. true regret for their sins) through silent pondering and prayer. This was hence called the "Pennsylvania system" as opposed to the "Auburn system" or "New York system", in which prisoners were made to work together during the daytime and in which physical punishment was still part of the package (cf. West Virginia Penitentiary).
Whatever the moral good intentions may have been, the reality was no less cruel: instead of becoming penitent, many prisoners simply went insane through years of isolation in enforced silence.
The offenders were kept in complete isolation for their entire sentence (usually many years). They spent 23 hours a day in tiny cells, and the one hour outside the cell was spent in a separate, equally tiny "exercise yard" next to each cell: basically another box but without a ceiling. They never saw or heard another human being – even the guards are said to have worn covers over their shoes to muffle the sound of their footsteps. Food was passed through a hatch in the door, and on the few occasions that inmates were led out of their cells, they had to wear face masks.
The place was even an early (dark?) tourist attraction: visitors not only came to see the imposing building up close from the outside, they were even allowed inside and to speak to prisoners (who meanwhile were not allowed to have family visiting!). One especially prominent visitor was Charles Dickens, who came here in 1842, and in his "American Notes" described what he had seen as "cruel and wrong".
This enforced regime of monk-like silence and near 100% solitary confinement at ESP was apparently the most ambitious experiment of the whole penitentiary idea anywhere. And of course it didn't last. Not so much because it was seen as morally wrong, but overcrowding and deviance from the idealized rules led to a slow departure from the system.
On the other hand, the building was also pioneering some new comforts like central heating and state-of-the-art plumbing, long before most other buildings had these features. But that could do little to alleviate the psychological cruelty of the system.
Overcrowding also enforced changes to the layout of the prison. Originally, the cell blocks were intended to be single storey affairs along high vaulted corridors (deliberately made to look church-like, or monastery-like, in order to make one feel "small"), and cells had a single skylight as the only opening to the outside – letting in God's watchful gaze … and nothing else.
Soon, though, the cell blocks were built as two-storey stacks. Later still, new cell blocks were wedged in between the seven original ones, ending with a total number of 15 blocks, including two three-storey concrete blocks. In 1913, the system of solitary confinement was finally abandoned.
ESP has seen a few escapes, though all but one of the ca. 100 escapees in the prison's 142 years of operation were recaptured. Riots were a comparatively rare occurrence, though two notable ones took place in the 1930s over issues such as insufficient recreational facilities and low wages.
Probably the most famous/infamous inmate ESP ever had was Al Capone – although he only spent eight months here, and in unusually comfortable conditions (as his restored cell still pays testimony to). He was later imprisoned in Alcatraz.
In 1970/1971 ESP was finally closed and abandoned. It then stood derelict for nearly two decades, increasingly overgrown and home to scores of stray cats. Vandals also added to the decay over time. Eventually, the whole complex was in such a dilapidated state that there was even talk of demolishing it altogether.
However, its historical significance saved the building from that fate, and from the early 1990s onwards, serious preservation efforts began. Regular tours for visitors were started in 1994 – those early visitors were required to wear hard hats, for fear of falling debris from the crumbling walls.
Meanwhile, conservation has progressed far enough for several wings of the prison to be freely visitable. Other wings are still off limits to visitors while more restoration work is being done (e.g. replacing semi-collapsed roofs). It's a long-term project.
On the other hand, it is precisely this "charm" of dereliction that adds to the dark attraction of the site. Combined with its dark history as a unique prison, it's a wholly worthwhile jewel in the USA's crown of dark tourism attractions and one of the absolute must-sees in Philadelphia.
What there is to see: Even from the outside the massive fortress-like building may look grim, but inside it's even better, especially if you (like me) can see the attraction of semi-dereliction in such a historic place.
You enter through the main gate in the centre of the southern front. A blackboard by the door to the exhibition, shop and starting point of the tour will inform you of what special guided tours are on offer that day and at what times.
A dank and dark corridor then leads to the shop-cum-ticket office where you pay your admission fee and are handed a headset with an audio-guide. The so-called "Voices of Eastern State" audio tour takes you through the most important parts of the freely visitable sections of the prison.
I'm normally not a great fan of audio-guides, but I gave it a shot, even though you don't necessarily have to use it. Much of the essential information is also available on text and photo panels along the way. The narration on the audio-guide is OK, but I ended up only scanning parts of it all the same, as I found that this kind of "bringing things to life" actually detracted from the silent, dark atmosphere of the site.
The audio-guide takes you through ten main thematic points, starting just outside the shop between the high prison walls and the cell blocks. It then takes you through cell block No. 1 to the centre, the "surveillance hub" from where the "wagon wheel spokes" of the cell blocks all branch off. The main tour ends outside cell block No. 4 by one of the tiny solitary exercise yards behind the cells.
In addition to the ten main points, there are various optional extra points, relating to specific themes such as "intake", "sports", "barber shop", etc. – there are also special stops at the cells of notable inmates, most prominently, of course, Al Capone's.
The latter is a demonstration of the man's continued influence even in prison – apparently he engineered some pretty cushy privileges (which he was later denied at Alcatraz). He had classy proper furniture, including a comfy armchair, a davenport desk/cabinet and lamps with proper lampshades. It looks almost cosy.
The other cells you get to see (plenty of them) are in various states of decay and dilapidation, but some do still give a pretty good impression of the dark and damp living conditions the normal inmates had to endure.
One not-at-all normal inmate is also highlighted, namely "Pep" the dog! Yes, at one point there was a dog with a proper inmate number "imprisoned" here too – allegedly for having murdered the then governor's wife's beloved cat. The story is contested and the black Labrador may well have been no more than a mascot or pet. But the mugshot photo of "Pep, the cat-murdering dog" with the number around his neck and an "expression" on his face that looks like "guilt", does make for an odd peculiarity.
Seriously darker aspects are the "Klondike" isolation cells, also known as "The Hole", where prisoners who broke the rules were placed in underground mini-cells with low ceilings and no light or plumbing (this time for overt punishment rather than for the ideal of redemption and penitence). Similarly grim are the Death Row cells added in the 1950s, the last cell block (No. 15) to be wedged in between the older wings.
The main thing, though, is the long sinister corridors (some not accessible as such but you can peek in through bars/gates), rusting cell doors and bed frames, peeling paint and plaster, as well as various little details to be discovered when walking around with perceptive eyes. It's simply a captivating atmosphere overall.
Needless to say, the place is also a dream for photographers. By the way: photography is not only permitted here but even encouraged. Hand-held shooting is free, but a 10 USD fee is levied for the use of tripods.
ESP has been used as a location not only for professional photos (e.g. Sting had photos for the cover of one of his albums taken here) but also as a film set, e.g. for the Terry Gilliam movie "12 Monkeys" (where it served as the set of a psychiatric ward).
The extraordinary space offered by ESP is also utilized for various art installations, some of them quite intriguing. For example, there are plaster cats distributed throughout the buildings – a tribute to the colony of stray cats that took up residence in the prison after it was abandoned in 1971 and who were fed for 28 years by then city caretaker Dan McCloud. After the cats were neutered in the 1990s, the population dwindled. The plaster cats (36 in total) represent the "ghosts" of those cats of the past.
The most intriguing art installation from a dark tourist's point of view is one that explicitly topicalizes dark tourism! It's by artist John Mills and is entitled "On Tour". It basically consists just of "signposting" to various places that (more or less) qualify as dark tourism destinations, e.g. there are blue signs reading "Trinity Site", "Rwanda 1994", or "32.77903°N  96.9086°W".
The first two are self-explanatory enough, the latter will perhaps need some explication: it's the co-ordinates of the assassination site of JFK in Dallas, Texas (cf. Sixth Floor Museum). In a similar fashion, the co-ordinates of the location where the "Titanic" sank are given, other places are identified by an address. The sign "Arbeit macht frei" should easily enough (and correctly) be associated with Nazi concentration camps (esp. Auschwitz, although that name is not explicitly mentioned here).
Not all of the ten places singled out by Mills also feature here as dark tourism destinations, e.g. the address of the house where the most notorious of the Charles Manson "family" murders took place (including that of Roman Polanski's wife Sharon Tate) or the Antietam battleground. The former is not included here simply because it doesn't exist any more, the latter because it falls outside of the general time-frame of the concept of dark tourism applied on this website. I am also doubtful of the inclusion of "poverty tourism" in Mills' concept of dark tourism (see ethical issues, and beyond dark tourism, esp. slum tourism). Such objections aside, it is still remarkable to find the concept of dark tourism mentioned so overtly at all – and I wish that was the case more often in other places too.
But back to ESP as such.
In addition to the regular self- and/or audio-guided "history tours", I also went on two of the special guided tours when I visited (in April 2010). The first was the "Prison inside a Prison" tour, which apart from a lot of extra background information relayed by the lively guide also took the group to the "Klondike" isolation cells in block 14, which can only be seen from the inside on this tour.
The other special tour was the one entitled "Life behind the Walls". This was particularly interesting. Amongst other things (e.g. providing information about prisoners' newspapers), it has added value in that it takes visitors to more dilapidated parts of the ruins and to the courtyard behind the (inaccessible) chapel, movie theatre and commissary building. The guide on this tour was also remarkably frank about the flaws in the contemporary American penal system. The fact that the USA has the largest relative prison population in the world, she said, begged the question: can it really be that Americans are the most criminal people on the planet – or could it rather be that there is something fundamentally wrong with our system? Too right.    
These guided tours, I found, were a very worthwhile addition to the regular visit, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of the guides themselves. I can't comment on the other tours on offer, but the one about "escapes" may also be of special interest to some dark tourists, while the architectural tour may be less so. But, as I said, I can't give any first-hand comments on those.
Back at the starting point of the self-guided/audio tour, an indoor exhibition complements and completes the experience of the site. Here information panels with texts and photos recount the development of the Pennsylvania system of separation and isolation of prisoners and the competition with the "New York system" (or "Auburn system") of prisons like Sing Sing or the West Virginia Penitentiary (see under 'background info').
While the failure of the system is spelt out, the lasting impact of ESP's design in architectural terms is highlighted through various examples of prisons worldwide that copied the "hub-and-spokes" layout of cell blocks.
A door branching off the exhibition leads into a room that once must have been the visitation room (in the later years of the prison's history, i.e. after the penitentiary system of strict isolation had been given up and inmates could receive visits from relatives). Inside the openings where inmates and visitors would have faced each other during such visits, some TV sets have been placed on which some historic footage related to the prison is played.
Next to the exhibition and by the exit/entrance there's also an extensive museum shop with lots of (more or less) prison-related souvenirs such as T-shirts, mugshot mugs, brochures, DVDs and books, as well as large-scale prints of professional photographs for sale.
Location: on Fairmount Ave., between Corinthian Ave. and N 22nd street, north-west of downtown Philadelphia roughly a mile and a half (2.5 km) from City Hall.
Google maps locator:[39.9675,-75.1727]
Access and costs: a manageable walk from downtown, or a short bus ride; quite reasonably priced.
Details: To get to ESP you can simply walk it from downtown, e.g. first along the grand Ben Franklin Parkway and then up N 22nd or 21st St which will take you straight to the prison's unmissably imposing front facade near the entrance.
Alternatively, you can take a bus: lines 7 and 48 and go up 22nd St from downtown and have stops closest to the Penitentiary (for times and more options see septa.org).
Those who want to drive may find free on-street parking near ESP, but some have 2-3 hour time restrictions. A large public parking lot is just opposite the south-western corner of the prison on Fairmount Ave (charges start from ca. 3 USD).
Opening hours: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (note that some guided tours run only in summer, though!)
Admission: 12 USD (senior citizens: 10 USD; students and kids aged eight to twelve 8 USD; the site is not recommended for children under seven).
What's particularly good is that the price includes the daytime special tours when they are on (places are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis), so it pays off to plan ahead:
Special tours:
"Escape!", a tour focusing on the details of some of the 100 escapes that took place at ESP, is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 4:15 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. – "Life Behind the Walls", concentrating on what it was like at different times to be imprisoned at ESP, is on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 4:15 p.m. – "Prison inside a Prison", detailing the penalties levied if prisoners broke the rules, is on daily at 3:15 p.m. and additionally at 12:15 at weekends (in summer, an extra tour is offered at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesdays) – "142 Years of Architecture", focusing, as the name suggests, on the special architectural features of ESP, takes place daily at 2:15 p.m. and at 11:15 a.m. on weekends.
In summer, there are additional "Twilight Tours" on Wednesday evenings when ESP remains open until 8 p.m.
Private group tours and special one-hour winter tours can also be arranged (see easternstate.org/visit for more details)
Time required: more than you might think. The regular, audio-guided tour plus self-guided walk around the other parts not covered by the audio-guide, plus the small exhibition by the entrance, will in total require at least two hours, quite likely even longer if you want to take everything in at a leisurely pace. The daytime special tours last an extra 30 minutes minimum each. So if you co-ordinate your visit in such a way that you can go on several such tours (up to four is theoretically possible on weekends), then total visitation time will go up accordingly, and can mean up to a whole long day.
Combinations with other dark destinations: the Mütter Museum is a good two miles (3.5 km) straight down on 22nd Street, halfway there's the "Gates of Hell" at the Rodin Museum – see under Philadelphia for details and further suggestions.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Philadelphia – closest to ESP is the Philadelphia Museum of Art just a few blocks to the west, at the northern end of Ben Franklin Parkway. Fairmount Park stretches up along both sides of the Schuylkill River north of the Art Museum.
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 01 - entranceEastern State Penitentiary 01 - entrance
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 02 - original corridorEastern State Penitentiary 02 - original corridor
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 03 - modelEastern State Penitentiary 03 - model
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 04 - later two-tiered cell blockEastern State Penitentiary 04 - later two-tiered cell block
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 05 - cell interiorEastern State Penitentiary 05 - cell interior
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 06 - small exercise yardEastern State Penitentiary 06 - small exercise yard
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 07 - upturned bed frameEastern State Penitentiary 07 - upturned bed frame
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 08 - creepyEastern State Penitentiary 08 - creepy
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 09 - cell blockEastern State Penitentiary 09 - cell block
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 10 - at the centre of the complexEastern State Penitentiary 10 - at the centre of the complex
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 11 - dilapidationEastern State Penitentiary 11 - dilapidation
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 12 - prison wallsEastern State Penitentiary 12 - prison walls
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 13 - corner watchtowerEastern State Penitentiary 13 - corner watchtower
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 14 - dark tourism acknowledgedEastern State Penitentiary 14 - dark tourism acknowledged
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 15 - artist catsEastern State Penitentiary 15 - artist cats
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 16 - behind barsEastern State Penitentiary 16 - behind bars
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 17 - clean slateEastern State Penitentiary 17 - clean slate
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 18 - mystically dilapidated stateEastern State Penitentiary 18 - mystically dilapidated state
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 19 - red crossEastern State Penitentiary 19 - red cross
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 20 - creepy corridorEastern State Penitentiary 20 - creepy corridor
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 21 - relics and peeling wallsEastern State Penitentiary 21 - relics and peeling walls
  • Eastern State Penitentiary 22 - blue-lit cellEastern State Penitentiary 22 - blue-lit cell
  • Eastern State PenitentiaryEastern State Penitentiary

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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