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The Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

The Eastern State Penitentiary The Eastern State Penitentiary Photo by shinya via Flickr

One of the most thrilling and fascinating attractions in Philadelphia is this former prison which operated from 1829 to 1971. The prison was unique in focusing on reforming the prisoners and inspiring penitence rather than just punishing them. To this end the prison building pioneered a design where inmates were separately confined in their own cells and contact between the prisoners was avoided. The prison exterior may resemble a medieval castle but to further the idea of reform and penitence the interior is surprisingly church-like. The halls of the building were designed to resemble a church with beautiful high vaulted ceilings and there was a single skylight in each cell representing God constantly keeping an eye on the inmates. Within the cells each prisoner had water pipes along the walls to warm the cells in winter and a tap and toilet. The toilets were automatically flushed by the guards twice a week. 

The system used in the prison could not only be seen in the architecture but in the daily running of the institution. Prisoners were kept separate even when they were exercising or moving from place to place. The prison staff was required to visit and interact with the prisoners, also in an attempt to encourage reform. The prisoners were allowed to garden and even to keep pets. Part of the building was designed and built by the prisoners, themselves and the entire structure was revolutionary for its time. The Eastern State Penitentiary is a National Historic Landmark.

On a visit to the prison museum your entrance ticket allows you to take "The Voice of Eastern State" audio tour, take the "Hands-On History" tours and see history exhibits and the various artists' instillations. Visitors are guided through the facility using an mp3 player. The actor Steve Buscemi narrates the audio guide which tells you about the history of the prison, the famous escapes, famous inmates like Al Capone, riots and sports that were played here. On the self-guided audio tour you'll pass the many artists' instillations. Together with the self guided audio tours there are short interactive tours led by the museum staff. These quick tours are called Hands-On History and include stops at areas that are usually off-limits. You can either plan when you want to take one of these tours or join in as you come across a group.

You can reach the Eastern State Penitentiary by public transport, it is located at 2027 Fairmont Avenue. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm and admission is $14 for adults and $10 for kids. This Philadelphia attraction is not recommended for kids under seven years old.


Every day: 10 am to 5 pm
Address/Map:  2027 Fairmount Ave Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300
Website: Plan your visit to The Eastern State Penitentiary
Admission: Adult $14 | Seniors $12 | Student & Kids $10 | Free for members