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Eastern State Penitentiary

Radical 19th century prison designed to create social change

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary – with its massive, fortress-like 30-foot walls – is an intimidating and spooky presence in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia


The Experience

Eastern State Penitentiary set the standard for penal reform, with its soaring, castle-like Gothic architecture and its founders’ Quaker-inspired belief that solitary confinement could reform criminals. The 11-acre prison even had central heat, running water and flush toilets before the White House! A Who’s Who of the underworld – bank robber Willie Sutton, who staged a breakout in 1945, and Al Capone, who furnished his cell with antiques, rugs and oil paintings – both served time here.

Tours include a look at life inside the prison’s historic cell blocks, Al Capone’s restored 19th-century cell, stories of inmate escapes, and critically acclaimed art installations. The annual “Terror Behind the Walls” tours – running select nights from September until November – are the region’s premier Halloween event!

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When Eastern State opened in 1829, visitors from around the world marveled at its grand architecture (John Havilland) and radical philosophy. The experiment, to reform criminals through strict isolation, soon became a model for prison design world wide. An estimated 300 prisons on four continents are based on Eastern’s distinctive “wagon-wheel” floor plan. Once the most expensive building in the USA, Eastern State was finally abandoned in 1971 after 142 years in use. It is a National Historic Landmark.

Virtual Tour

The New York Times has published a fantastic multimedia tour of the prison called Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary, featuring audio clips and great photography. View it here.

Terror Behind The Walls

Terror Behind the Walls is a blockbuster fall attraction and is considered one of the top haunted houses in the country. Click here to visit our page on Eastern State’s annual Halloween haunted house inside the penitentiary.

Kids’ Stuff

Eastern State Penitentiary offers a Scavenger Hunt activity guide, free with admission for children ages 7-12.

Insider Tip

Bring a camera! Photographers travel from all over the country to capture Eastern’s cathedral-like cellblocks and haunting, sky-lit prison cells. Insiders call the Penitentiary “ESP.”



22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19130
(215) 236-3300

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