ESP front 2Silence. Solitude. Penitence. No, we weren’t visiting a monastery when my husband and I traveled to Philadelphia recently. Actually these words reflect the philosophy of one of the most significant correctional institutions in history – Eastern State Penitentiary, which is also one of Philly’s most popular tourist attractions.

I was eager to visit the prison, which opened in 1829, on a recent trip  to Philadelphia. As a former Social Studies teacher I had taught my students about “The Pennsylvania System” and its correctional philosophy, which is akin to “time out” for children. We have visited Alcatraz several times, but it cannot compare to the architecture, history and design of the prison that became the model for over 320 prisons around the world. In its heyday, “E.S.P.” (as it is called by insiders) was considered the most contemporary, visionary prison of all time.

Eastern State is this nation’s first “penitentiary”, a prison designed to have inmates reflect on the “errors of their ways” and ask God for forgiveness – rehabilitation through penitence – reform rather than punishment. Originally each prison cell held only one prisoner with individual exercise fields, which were accessed from the back of each cell. One hour a day was allowed for exercise. The rest of the day the prisoner could read the Bible provided to him, look through his skylight to the heavens and work on tasks such as weaving and shoemaking. Food was served to a prisoner in his cell and prisoners would be hooded when outside their cells.Eastern_State_Penitentiary

As we walked through the prison we noted the original floor plan, where 7 single-story cellblocks met in the center (also called “Hub” or “Spoke”). It was easy to visualize a security guard standing in the “hub” being able to look down each of the 7 corridors.

As time went on the prison’s philosophy and the cost to run the penitentiary resulted in many changes. When the prison was built, it was the most expensive public structure ever built; it even had central heat and indoor plumbing before the White House did. The prison was originally intended for only 256 inmates. It was hard to maintain such an edifice.

Also, critics were vociferous in their claims that the Pennsylvania System was inhumane because it resulted in mental breakdown and sensory deprivation. By 1913 the Pennsylvania System was officially abandoned. When visiting E.S.P. you will be able to see the “changes” that the institution went through over the following decades until the prison closed in 1971.

We had many tour options when we visited E.S.P., and we were glad we planned our day ahead of time. We were fascinated by the 1 hour guided tour that is held every day at 2:00. The tour is limited to 25 people, so we were advised to purchase a ticket online to reserve a spot for the day we wanted to visit. The guided tour is free with your admission, but it fills up quickly.

Also included with your admission is the “Voices of Eastern State Audio Tour” narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. We highly recommend this experience which includes 40 stops and helps the prison “come alive” with the real voices of former wardens, guards and inmates.

Capone's cellWe were amazed to see that the cell Al Capone stayed in had oriental rugs, a radio, oil paintings, antiques and expensive furniture (you will have to take the tour to learn about his “special treatment”). You will hear about the famous bank robber, “Slick Willie” Sutton, and enter the cell where the famous ill-fated 1945 tunnel escape originated (the hole to the tunnel is visible and a video in the cell shows the ongoing excavation work). Some other audio tour highlights are a visit to Death Row and The Hole. The eeriness that once prevailed at Eastern State Penitentiary was still present as we walked down the crumbling cell blocks and peered up at the tower’s catwalks.

Be sure to plan your day to include some of the Hands-On History interactive experiences. Tour guides provide short, intimate demonstrations that take place throughout the prison during the day. You may also be interested in the Artist Installations, chosen for an artist’s ability to address Eastern State’s primary themes with a memorable, thought-provoking approach.

The Halloween season brings E.S.P to life. Rated one of the top haunted attractions in the country (and being America’s largest ESP cellhaunted house), the Terror Behind the Walls attraction has been drawing huge crowds for over 20 years. The event consists of 6 haunted attractions, and the “amount” of interaction you would like when you encounter the ghouls is left to your own discretion.

Terror Behind the Walls runs for 29 nights from late September through early November – that is how popular the event has become since its inception in 1991 (when it was only a single-night event). Also, many people believe that Eastern State is really haunted. Since the 1940’s officers and inmates have claimed to have mysterious experiences behind the prison walls. Imagine roaming through Eastern State Penitentiary at night when the cell blocks must become truly terrifying!

Try to visit Eastern State Penitentiary on a visit to Philadelphia. It is truly a unique and unusual attraction, one that is historical, educational and intriguing. The prison is open all year, except for major holidays.

For more information on Eastern State Penitentiary call 215-236-5111 or visit 

Photos by Jeff Sylva