When in Philly, Put Jail on Your Itinerary
Just blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the famed “Rocky Steps” in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, a large, ominous stone building is nestled among restaurants, bars, and humble townhouses. Known simply as “the prison” to locals, Eastern State Penitentiary is a National Historic Landmark that’s worth a visit.
Designed by English-born architect John Haviland in 1822, the penitentiary opened on October 25, 1829. Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first penitentiary: a place where the prisoners wouldn’t simply be punished but would be encouraged to benpenitent. At this point in history, it was a novel concept to try to rehabilitate criminals. The usual method had always been to toss them in a dungeon and throw away the key. Because of John Haviland’s unconventional approach to incarceration, “the prison” became world famous.
With seven corridors of heated and sky-lighted cells capable of holding 500 convicts in isolation, Eastern State’s revolutionary style of imprisonment, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system” or separate system, imposed isolation as a form of rehabilitation. The warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day. Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most well-known—and expensive—prisons in the world. Visitors from all over the globe came to see its innovative design and strict discipline. The prison housed some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and gangster Al Capone.
However, the Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement proved to be psychologically damaging to a great number of inmates. Over time, the prison became overcrowded, understaffed, and conditions deteriorated. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, with reportedly up to five men in some of cells that were originally designed for one inmate.
Today, Eastern State Penitentiary is a popular attraction, offering guided tours, beer gardens, entertainment, art exhibits, and other special events. The prison is in a partial state of ruin, but its crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers provide a haunting glimpse into the history of our nation’s prison system. Eastern State is a reminder of the changing nature of punishment and the importance of prison reform.
Eastern State Penitentiary is also the home of one of the largest haunted houses in the country. Held each fall, Halloween Nights is an immersive experience featuring five terrifying haunted houses across the 10-acre site. This year the frightening fun includes Big Top Terror, Infirmary, Lockdown, Quarantine, and Breakout. Visit Eastern State Penitentiary’s website for all the gory details.
In addition to all the haunted happenings during Halloween Nights, the prison also offers historic tours of the penitentiary, live performances, themed bars and lounges, and a variety of food and drink vendors. The most popular interactive experiences include the prison’s Escape Rooms and the very scary Zombie Laser Tag. Halloween Nights even offers family-friendly “scare-free” activities for the younger Halloween fans in the family.
Eastern State Penitentiary is located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia, and offers tours daily from 10am to 5pm. “Halloween Nights 2023” runs through November 11, 2023. Though tickets can be purchased online or at the door, we recommend you get tickets online as early as possible to guarantee your entry.
Written by Jenna, a local expert guide for Philly Crawling. A recent escapee from the corporate world, she enjoys volunteering and spending time with family. She’s a pet lover, self-proclaimed beer geek, travel enthusiast, and aspiring foodie. Join Jenna for history and beer on Philly Crawling’s Liberty Pub Crawl.