The Eastern State Penitentiary or ESP located in Philadelphia was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, operational from 1829 until 1971. Was the first to establish the policy of separate confinement, emphasizing principles of reform rather than punishment. ESP once held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.
When the building was constructed was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark, which is open to the public as a museum for tours every day from 10 am to 5 pm.
Designed by young architect John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary . Each cellblock was to radiate in different directions from the hub allowing easy view of every cellblock from the center. ESP became the most expensive penitentiary at a cost of $772,600 and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. It immediately became a popular attraction, being visited by sightseers from around the world. By mid-century the prison was being toured by 10,000 people per year.
Although the conditions and punishments at Eastern State were harsh, they probably weren’t harsher than other prisons of that time. The medical attention and the food were superior to prisons and it was generally free of the corruption and danger associated with older prisons. The inmates were also expected to work.Through the 19th century, problems of mental illness and overcrowding forced Eastern State officials to dilute and eventually abandon the idea of complete isolation. In the 20th century, Eastern State Penitentiary had its share of brutality, riots, hunger strikes, escapes, suicides, and scandals.
Eastern State was closed in 1971. By then it had been certified as a National Historic Landmark.
Famous ESP Inmates
Some of America’s most notorious criminals were held in Eastern State Penitentiary cells. Gangster Al Capone spent eight months here in relative comfort on a weapons charge . Eastern State was in the news again in 1945 when Willie Sutton, an infamous bank robber, and eleven other inmates escaped through a tunnel to Fairmount Avenue but they were all captured, most within a few hours.
- Ghost Cats featuring 39 cat sculptures
- The End of the Tunnel representing paths of escape routes used by prisoners.
- Recollection Tableaux representing important moments in the prison’s history
- GTMO is a replica of a Guantanamo Bay cell
- Midway of Another Day
- I always wanted to go to Paris, France
- My Glass House is an ambitious project set up by artist Judith Taylor
- Living Space consists of five videos containing time-lapse photographs of the ways Eastern State Penitentiary is altered by the changes of weather and light.
- Purge Incomplete exhibit will explore the history of plumbing at Eastern State Penitentiary.
The Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historic site, opened to the public year-round. Guided tours are offered during the winter, and during the warmer months, self-guided tours are also available. In addition, it holds many special events throughout the year.
From the catwalk atop the central rotunda at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, visitors can see the entire eleven acres of the abandoned facility. It’s hard to imagine that at one time this prison was the largest and most expensive building in America.
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