Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eastern State Penitentiary: Pennsylvania's Radical New Idea

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is the place where the word penitentiary was coined, from the word penitent, the penological rehabilitation model bringing about moral penitence by isolation in a cell with a bible.  It failed!

When Eastern State Penitentiary was built it was over a mile outside the city limits of Philadelphia in a cherry tree orchard, and was known as Cherry Hill.  The castle like facade was intentionally drab and intimidating.  Eastern State Penitentiary is a fascinating place to visit, even with kids.  An audio self guided tour via head set is provided with the entrance fee. 
A relatively modern tower built on top of the central control rotunda at the center of the prison gave a 360 view .
One of the original cell blocks.  The prison was open for over 140 years until it was closed in 1971.
Nine cell blocks jut off a central point in the prison.  This radical new prison design was incorporated into the design of over 300 new prisons world-wide. 

Although the prison closed in 1971, the layers of paint indicate this gate was the entrance to the hospital wing of the prison.  I imagine this to be a place of a lot of human misery and suffering.  I also imagine it's light colored stone floor to have been blood stained pretty often. 

Your humble blogger stands next to the inside of the 30 foot high perimeter wall of Eastern State Penitentiary.  The only escape was not over the wall, but under it. 
Below, standing next to the gate of one of the cell blocks.

Al Capone's cell, set up to look as is was during his 8 month stay in Eastern State. 


  1. Great shots! Your photos really captured the atmosphere and mood of what this dilapidated house of reform and- ahem, "redemption" must have felt like.

    Two shots really stood out for me: Al Capones cell and the gate to the hospital; for very different reasons.

    -- The cell because even though we all know there are "special" inmates (hard to type this sentence with as much sarcasm in which I mean it), I always marvel at the ways these "elite" prisoners are treated by staff throughout history.

    -- The hospital gate because it's just a great shot! I'm a big fan of blurring either the foreground or background, and I really like your effect of taking the shot through the red cross. Seeing that cross as they were wheeled past on a gurney likely meant the potential they would live to many a wounded inmate, and unfortunately, probably just a few staff members too. Great job!!!!

  2. Thanks, Tony! This is definitely worth a visit. Clearly, Al Capone had people on the take who he likely paid off or otherwise threatened to get privileges like this. I suspect there was a lot of violence in this place, but I need to do more research. One claim is they had a state-of-the-art hospital in the prison. People don't get good at what they do unless they are pushed to some extremes of their craft; I suspect their hospital became so good because it was used a lot.