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Explore Our Nation's Dark Past At The Eastern State Penitentiary

February 18, 2020 By CityPASS

Just minutes from the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art stands the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, an imposing 19th-century Gothic structure in which both Al Capone and "Slick Willie" Sutton were incarcerated for their respective crimes. Built in 1829, this National Historic Landmark was once heralded for its innovative approach to imprisonment and was an active prison for over 100 years. The Eastern State Penitentiary gave up its status as an active prison in 1971, but today you can take a tour of the complex and get an idea of what it was like to be an inmate there.

Life at the Eastern State Penitentiary

Inmates were held in solitary confinement in an attempt to encourage rehabilitation and "penitence" (hence the prison’s moniker). Each prisoner was allotted his own cell and exercise yard, in which many inmates planted gardens and kept pets. The cells were made of solid concrete and contained a single skylight to let the sun in, which was designed to represent the "Eyes of God." Even when inmates were outside in their exercise lots they followed a schedule that ensured they were never close enough to another inmate to allow any conversation. Despite the strict isolation rules, 12 prisoners (including Willie Sutton) actually managed to engineer an escape through a 97-foot long tunnel under the building in 1945.

Eastern State Penitentiary Tours

Those who like to explore at their own pace will love the option to listen to a handheld audio narration as they wander the halls. "The Voices of Eastern State," narrated by Steve Buscemi (the celebrated actor from Boardwalk Empire and Fargo), follows a main audio route that leads you through the complex and includes optional stops for more in-depth narration on topics like escapes and riots.

If you’d prefer to take a live tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary with a guide, try the 75-minute tour that starts every day at 2pm. This tour not only delves into the history of the Penitentiary, but also engages the group in a dialogue about criminal justice reform. The tour is limited to 25 people; be sure to inquire about getting a reservation upon arrival or reserve a space online when you buy tickets.

Eastern State Penitentiary Events & Exhibits

Don’t miss the Hands-On History interactive experiences! Throughout the complex you’ll have the opportunity to step into a prisoner’s shoes and get a brief taste of life at the Eastern State Penitentiary when a guide literally hands you the keys to a cell. Experiences include a hospital visit, "over the wall," punishment cells, and more. You can find the schedule for the Hands-On History on the official Eastern State Penitentiary website; each one is offered several times throughout the day.

Along with the audio and guided tours, Eastern State Penitentiary also offers several intriguing permanent exhibits. For example, learn about Jewish life at the penitentiary, marvel at Al Capone’s refurbished cell, and even admire beautifully painted murals. Below are the permanent exhibits at the Eastern State Penitentiary:

  • Murals of the Catholic Chaplains: The Penitentiary staff consistently included several chaplains from the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic faiths; a warden from the 1880’s built offices that these chaplains later used as their own offices. In 1955, inmate Lester Smith took it upon himself to decorate these offices with a series of 23 vivid murals that reflected his personal repentance during his stay at the Penitentiary.
  • Al Capone’s Cell: In 1929 the famed gangster got his first taste of prison when he was arrested outside of a movie theater for his concealed and unregistered revolver, which resulted in a seven-month stint in the "Pen." Officials at the Penitentiary were somewhat in awe of Capone and helped him outfit his cell with fine furnishings, ornate rugs, and even a fancy radio. (Capone was an ardent fan of the waltz.)
  • Jewish Life at Eastern State: Jewish inmates were allowed to pray in the Penitentiary’s synagogue, which has been restored and is available for visitors to view today. Alongside the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue is The William Portner Memorial Exhibit on Jewish Life at Eastern State Penitentiary, a set of workshops that offer insight into Jewish life while incarcerated.
  • Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration: This exhibit emphasizes Eastern State Penitentiary’s ongoing focus on contemporary corrections issues and highlights ways visitors can help influence the American criminal justice system. One element of the exhibit, The Big Graph, is a massive 3,500-lb steel sculpture that illustrates three startling sets of statistics on incarceration in a way far more profound than could ever be achieved through words alone.
  • Art Installations: These ever-changing installations are inspired by the corrections and penal system and will amaze you with their depth and creativity.

Eastern State Penitentiary Tickets

If you’re looking to purchase Eastern State Penitentiary tickets, you can do so online via the official website or buy them at the complex when you arrive. However, savvy tourists looking for an Eastern State Penitentiary coupon can snag tickets via Philadelphia CityPASS® tickets. This wallet-friendly ticket bundle delivers a discount of up to on admission to Philly’s top attractions, including the Please Touch Museum®, Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and more. It’s the perfect opportunity for visitors and residents alike to take advantage of the best culture and entertainment Philadelphia has to offer — for less!

Eastern State Penitentiary Hours

Eastern State Penitentiary hours are the same every day, but check the official website for potential events and holiday hours.

Terror Behind the Walls is one of the Eastern State Penitentiary events you won’t want to miss! While it requires a ticket separate from the one you’d purchase to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, it’s a Halloween fanatic’s dream come true, with six terrifying haunted attractions that will spike your adrenaline in no time. Note this is only available around Halloween, so check the official website for dates.

Is There Parking at the Eastern State Penitentiary?

The Eastern State Penitentiary occupies an entire city block and there is street parking available around its perimeter. Guests can also take advantage of a nearby parking lot.

How Long Does Eastern State Penitentiary Take?

Whether you take an audio or guided tour or choose to explore the facility on your own, plan to spend at least two hours at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Take a look back in time and peek into the world of 19th- and early 20th-century imprisonment at this Philadelphia penitentiary. Its sinister halls and imposing façade will fascinate visitors, and the displays and tours are chock full of fascinating historical facts.

Nearby Lodging

To get the most out of your stay in Philadelphia, we recommend finding lodging near Philadelphia's top attractions like Eastern State Penitentiary. Use this map to find the right lodging for you:

Explore the Eastern State Penitentiary for Less With CityPASS® Tickets

It would be a crime to pay full price to visit this historical site when you can save up to with Philadelphia CityPASS® tickets. With your CityPASS® admission, you can score big savings on Philadelphia’s top attractions including the Adventure Aquarium, Big Bus Company and Philadelphia Trolley Works, Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, and more. Choose from 3-, 4-, or 5-attraction options and experience all that Philadelphia has to offer for less!

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