The facility’s iconic island location, just 1¼ miles from San Francisco, and its reputation as being inescapable give it a pedigree that’s near impossible to match.
But by the time Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary welcomed its first prisoners in August 1934, a facility on the other side the country was already 100 years removed from an experiment that shaped lockups around the globe.
Eastern State Penitentiary is about a 15-minute walk northeast of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It has offered tours since the mid-1990s, and it is a particularly popular spot this time of year when it leverages part of its facility for a unique and terrifying haunted attraction.
Here is a bit on Eastern State Penitentiary and the Eastern State Penitentiary haunted house Terror Behind the Walls, well worth a visit during any trip to Philly.
Eastern State Penitentiary welcomed its first prisoner, Charles Williams, in 1829. Eastern State was the nation’s first “penitentiary,” a term now commonly used interchangeably with prison or correctional facility.
Penitentiary is a derivative of penitence, a feeling of sorrow for having done something wrong.
The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, a group of well-known Philadelphia citizens, advocated for the penitentiary. It was designed to keep prisoners in isolation. Inmates lived alone, had isolated exercise spaces and even wore hoods when outside their cells. The goal was to create genuine regret in prisoners’ hearts.
Over the ensuing decades, however, the Pennsylvania System, as it was known, gave way to more modern practices. Inmates eventually exercised together, worked in communal workshops and shared cells.
In 1913, the prison abandoned the Pennsylvania System.
Pennsylvania closed the penitentiary in 1971 in the face of costly repairs. The Pennsylvania Prison Society initiated public tours in the mid-1990s. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., a nonprofit organization, has operated the attraction since 2001.
The Design of Eastern State Penitentiary
Architect John Haviland was responsible for the nearly 10-acre facility. His design, which stands today, features a hub-and-spoke layout of seven cellblocks stemming from a common rotunda.
For many guests, one of the most interesting parts of the penitentiary is the dichotomy of its interior and exterior. With battlements and arrow slit windows, the exterior is more castle than prison, and that certainly isn’t an accident.
“It’s designed to intimidate, and it works,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president of Eastern State Penitentiary. Hired in May 1995, he was the first full-time employee when the facility went from prison to tourist attraction.
The facility’s appearance played off Americans’ knowledge of European castles, and the people who controlled them.
“That imagery would have been very clear to someone in the early 1800s…People who build castles are not typically people you want to mess with. You don’t want to be on the other side of that wall. From the outside, you’d assume it’s dungeons and torture chambers.”
But that’s not what guests experience when they enter. Instead, on a sunny day, they are graced with cathedral ceilings and natural light pouring in through dozens of skylights in both hallways and cells.
“People aren’t prepared for it. It’s beautiful,” Kelley said.
Eastern State Penitentiary runs tours year-round. “The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour is included with admission. Guests don MP3 players to hear from former wardens, guards, inmates and actor Steve Buscemi, who narrates the experience, as they explore the facility.
The main tour has 10 audio stops and takes about 35 minutes. Optional stops highlighting death row and solitary exercise yards, among other areas, make for more than two hours of total content.
Hands-on History demonstrations are also included. They run about five minutes each and take place throughout the complex. Guests can explore subterranean punishment cells, learn how to open a cell and even take a crack at opening the penitentiary’s massive front gate.
But a look into the past isn’t the only part of the Eastern State Penitentiary experience. Eastern State strives to showcase connections between the criminal justice system past and present.
The Big Graph, a 16-foot-tall, 3,500-pound steel sculpture, looks at modern incarceration rates. Highlighted statistics change based on where visitors stand. Did you know, for example, that U.S. incarceration rate of 700 people per every 100,000 citizens is the world’s highest?
“Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration” explores a similar thread. The exhibit, which opened in early May, examines how changes in law, policing and sentencing have driven the nation’s incarceration rate.
Additionally, visits have a goal of fostering empathy for prisoners. It might be easy to think as prisoners as a single pack of humanity, Kelley said, but it’s really millions of individuals.
“Prisons have a real, definite purpose. There are people who need to be removed from society because they are dangerous, or people who need to be punished, but people in prison are people. We are always looking for ways to bring humanity to prisoners. The vast majority of them will be our neighbors eventually,” Kelley said.
A couple of favorites: Five years before he landed on The Rock, infamous gangster Al Capone did time in Philadelphia. He spent eight months of a one-year sentence at Eastern State after being arrested for carrying an unlicensed handgun.
Capone’s cell is recreated for visitors with replica furniture, oriental rugs and a cabinet radio.
Another popular tale is that of Pep, a black Labrador retriever and inmate C-2559. One story says Pep was sentenced to Eastern State for killing the governor’s cat. Another story, based in significantly less folklore, is that Pep was sent to the facility from the state police K-9 training academy to boost morale. He lived among prisoners for about a decade beginning in August 1924.
Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted House: Terror Behind the Walls
Eastern State Penitentiary has an inherent leg up on even the most frighteningly fantastic seasonal scare spot. Terror Behind the Walls, runs through Halloween, with two final opportunities on Nov. 4 and 5.
Guests traverse a sextet of spooky experiences including the “Machine Shop” and the “Infirmary.”
“Lock Down: The Uprising” is new for 2016, as is the Hex Challenge. A VIP experience, the Hex Challenge presents guests with a type of escape room associated with each of the attraction’s six areas.
Brave visitors can mark themselves for a heightened level of interactivity. If you opt in, be ready for actors to grab you, guide you toward hidden passageways or hold you back from your group.
Terror Behind the Walls has been startling guests since 1991, pre-dating regular daytime tours. Admission to the attraction actually helped fund the first year of tours, according to Kelley.
“The two experiences have always gone together,” he said.
It’s tough to ignore the irony of any prison becoming a tourist site. Jails, prisons, correctional facilities and penitentiaries are designed to limit the entrance and, especially, the exit of anyone.
Eastern State is no exception. While improvements have been made for visitors (when Kelley started the penitentiary didn’t even have a phone), the ticket office remains in a former laundry room and the building lacks air conditioning.
Because of that, Kelley said, the facility’s focus in the years to come is adding modern amenities, including a modern visitor center and auditorium.
To learn more about Eastern State Penitentiary tours and Terror Behind the Walls, visit www.easternstate.org.