Fewer structures in Philadelphia are more imposing than Eastern State Penitentiary. Towering Gothic architecture creates a fortress-like facade in the Fairmount neighborhood, and the prison’s history lives on inside the walls. Check out what’s behind this famed attractions, and what guests can expect when visiting Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State opened in 1829 with a revolutionary system for incarceration. The layout and Quaker-inspired philosophy, which became known as the “Pennsylvania system,” maintained separate confinement in order to facilitate rehabilitation. This was a direct contrast to the Auburn system, which believed that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, often subjected to physical punishment. Eventually, Eastern State’s radial floor plan and system was replicated in hundreds of prisons worldwide. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and ceased operations in 1971.
The penitentiary housed numerous notorious criminals, with Al Capone and Willie Sutton being the most notable. In May 1929, Capone was sentenced to nine months in jail for carrying a gun in Philadelphia. While at the prison, Capone’s cell became known as Eastern State’s “Park Avenue”—oriental rugs, fine furniture, and oil paintings were some of the pieces he kept in the small space.
Infamous bank robber Willie Sutton called Eastern State home for eleven years. In 1945, twelve inmates (including Sutton) executed a major escape. Over the course of a year, the inmates dug a 97-foot tunnel under the prison wall. Surron was recaptured the same day by Philadelphia police.
Visitors can enjoy tours of the prison daily, and experience what life inside the historic cell blocks was like. Guests can view Al Capone’s restored cell, listen to stories of inmate escapes, and view critically acclaimed art installations.
While in the area, be sure to check out some of the surrounding restaurants. We recommend: