Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary

I went back to Eastern State Penitentiary recently specifically to visit the hospital wing, but a return visit to ESP was never far from my mind. ESP is a former prison, operational from 1829 until 1971. The prison was one of the first examples of what would become known as the "Pennsylvania System" of incarceration, a system that encouraged separate confinement of prisoners. In contrast, the "New York System"—enforced at Sing Sing—forced inmates to work together.

By 1913, however, ESP abandoned its solitary system due to overcrowding. Even in the 19th century it was a tourist destination—once hosting Charles Dickens—and Al Capone was one of its most infamous residents. Al Capone's richly decorated cell is one of the main attractions here, although I overheard a guide explaining that tales of his lavish prison life and special treatment may have been greatly exaggerated. 

ESP is one of my favorite places to take photos. It has all the appeal of an abandoned space—peeling paint, leftover objects, rusty metal—but without the stress of trespassing. Because they offer self-guided audio tours, I never felt rushed (except in guided-tour-only spaces like the hospital wing). It was significantly more crowded this time than the first time I visited, but that was probably just the difference between November and July. I was afraid that I would take exactly the same the photos this time around, but I was surprised to find that a lot of the object arrangements had changed—and even if they hadn't there's just so much here to see that I'm sure I still haven't seen everything.

I didn't know before I went that it was Bastille Day—ESP throws a big celebration later in the day, including a reinterpretation of the storming of the Bastille. They were still setting up for the festival as I was leaving, but if I had known that they would be throwing thousands of Tastykakes from the penitentiary towers, I definitely would have stayed longer. 


Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Open daily, 10am-5pm

Goodbye, Brooklyn

Goodbye, Brooklyn

Philly

Philly