History of Eastern State Penitentiary

The exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary

When Eastern State Penitentiary opened 180 years ago it was the most expensive and high-tech prison in the world. This Gothic-like structure towered over Philadelphia.

Designed by John Haviland, Eastern State was an architectural masterpiece that was the first true penitentiary that created a new system of prisoner isolation. This correctional institute opened on October 25, 1829, and became the most influential prison ever built.


In 1787, a group of powerful Philadelphia men met in the home of Benjamin Franklin. They discussed the growing concerns in American and European prisons. Most 18th century prisons were holding pens that housed men, women and children regardless of their crime. Physical punishment and mutilation were common and abuse by the guards was rampant. Their goal was to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set an international standard in prison design.

It took this group more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth but their efforts paid off when Eastern State opened. It was the most expensive building of it’s era. Inside these prison walls was running water, flush toilets and central heating, amenities that not even the White House had.

Original Principles of Eastern State

This penitentiary didn’t want to just punish the criminal, they wanted to move the inmates toward spiritual reflection and change. This Quaker-inspired system of isolation was strict. In each of the arced-ceiling cells was a single skylight that was coined the “Eye of God”. Low arc-entrances to each cell forced inmates to bend over as they entered, the system’s way to instill humbleness.

To prevent distraction and knowledge of the building, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside of their cells. Verbal interaction with the guards was limited. Proponents of this system believed that this silence forced inmates to think about their crime and would become penitent; thus the new word, penitentiary.

Worldwide News

News of this state penitentiary traveled and virtually all 19th century prisons were based on either this system or the Auburn System (work in the day, solitary at night). In the 1830s tourists and politicians flocked to see this architectural marvel, which began a debate on the effectiveness of solitary confinement.

Forbidding people from having any contact with the outside world took what sanity many had and obliterated it. Charles Dickens visited Eastern State in 1842 and was quoted, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Lobbying prevailed and the Pennsylvania System was abandoned in 1913. Some European and Asian countries maintained this system until the post-Second World War period.

Additions to the Structure

As the years went on, additional cellblocks, workshops and subterranean, windowless cells brought solitary confinement back to these historic buildings. In 1956, the last addition was made death row. Death row marked the final abandonment of the original belief that all people are capable of redemption as prisoners awaited execution.

Al Capone

Some of America’s most notorious criminals served time at Eastern State. Gangster Al Capone, sentenced to one year, was sent to this famous prison in 1929. He spent most of his time in comfort as he was allowed to furnish his cell with antiques, oil paintings, rugs and nice furniture.

In the End

By the 1960s costly repairs got out of control and in 1971 this historic prison closed. In 1994, The Pennsylvania Prison Society re-opened the penitentiary as a tourist attraction (under a 20-year agreement) and in 2001 a new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Incorporated, took over this agreement.