The World’s First True Penitentiary: Eastern State

Step into a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers

Eastern State Penitentiary, once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, was notorious for its revolutionary system of separate incarceration. Opened in 1829, the imposing reformatory was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners, rather than punishment.

The vaulted, sky-lit cells of Eastern State Penitentiary held approximately 80,000 people during 142 years of operation. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

The prison was in use for over 140 years and served as a home to bank robber Slick Willie Sutton and infamous gangster Al Capone. Capone’s cell, located in what is known as the “Park Avenue” section, has been restored and redesigned with a more realistic vision of what it would have looked like when he was incarcerated at Eastern State in the late 1920s. The more simpler presentation features a radio, cigar stand, toilet and additional bed for a cellmate.

Al Capone's redesigned cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Recently opened to the public is the prison’s long-abandoned medical wing. Cellblock 3, or the Hospital Block, features an operating room, laboratories, a pharmacy, X-ray lab, hydrotherapy rooms, psychiatric department, and a solarium for treating tuberculosis patients. Medical artifacts that remain in place are also on display.

Photo of the Eastern State Penitentiary Medical Wing by K. Huff for PHLCVB.
Photo of the Eastern State Penitentiary Medical Wing by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Kept in “preserved ruin,” the National Historic Landmark is open for artist installations, history exhibits and “Hands-On History” tours including the “Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Eastern State Penitentiary interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the time of the nation’s founding to the present day, all within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the historic prison. The site is open for tours seven days a week, year-round.

Photo by Darryl Moran for Eastern State Penitentiary.

Over the decades, officers and inmates reported eerie and mysterious experiences at the historic site and hundreds of paranormal investigations have been conducted there. During the filming of Paranormal Challenge, host Zak Bagans called Eastern State Penitentiary “one of the most haunted places in the world.” Each fall, the prison provides the opportunity to experience that phenomenon firsthand with its annual Terror Behind the Walls, a massive haunted house featuring Hollywood-quality sets, custom-designed props, animatronics, digital sound effects and a cast of more than 200 performers in a theatrical production that consists of six haunted attractions. Consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the United States, “Terror Behind the Walls” is the largest and runs on select evenings in the fall.

Photo by T. Bernard for Eastern State Penitentiary.

Conveniently located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary is just steps away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia.

Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

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