Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (2017 Fairmount Av.) is a reminder of how severely lawbreakers were punished for more than 150 years after it was built in 1829. The practice then was that each prisoner was kept in solitary confinement and meals brought to the cells. The inmates had just few moments outside daily and contact only with guards. The imposing building is now a popular tourist attraction and I think it makes a great stop for visitors of all ages.
At it’s most active period in the late 19th Century, Eastern State “Pen” held as many as 2,000 prisoners. Before it was closed in 1971, some of the most famous prisoners who served there included gangster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. Eastern State today is a Philadelphia tourist attraction, featuring daily visits by students, families and prison experts from all over the world. Although in musty and decaying condition, the institution can still cause visitors to experience some of the hardships and isolation endured by prisoners during its century and a half of existence.
My Experience With Eastern State “Pen” Just five city blocks away, I grew up in Girard College, at the time a residence school for fatherless boys. Many times through the years, I passed by the high, forbidding walls of the prison, often wondering what life was like inside. Unhappily, I did get to go inside several times when I was a young teenager. It was to visit a cousin when had been sentenced there for burglary. He was just 19, and seeing him so miserable behind bars became a memory I carried for many years. Later, while a student at the nearby Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts), I often passed the prison. Illustrating Philadelphia street scenes as class assignments, we used the prison gate house and walls as backdrops.
Returning To The Past On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I decided to return to Eastern State Pen. Although now it is an even more forbidding place in its rundown condition than it was back in my school days, it’s not only a popular tourist attraction, but also a respected National Historic Landmark.
I took the audio tour through the cellblocks, and viewed history exhibits and displays of art and murals covering some of the forbidding walls. There are also special night visits for groups who see actors dramatizing the lives of the former inmates. Several television programs have been filmed at the prison, including those investigating rumors of ghosts that are said to still haunt the spooky corridors and cells. Visiting hours are daily from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students and children.
For serious ghost hunters The prison is available for private night-time paranormal rentals, allowing groups to explore the supposedly haunted site. The rentals include a guide and cost $25 per hour per person, with a minimum of five guests for at least four hours.
Follow travel writer Ted Sherman on Twitter @travel4seniors and check out his blog, travel4seniors.com.