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Explore Our Nation's Most Historic Prison At The Eastern State Penitentiary

January 25, 2024 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 visit the complex and get an idea of what daily life was like for the people who once lived or worked there.

Life at the Eastern State Penitentiary

People incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary were initially held in solitary confinement in an attempt to encourage rehabilitation and "penitence" (hence the prison's moniker). Each prisoner was allotted their own cell and exercise yard. 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 prisoners were outside in their exercise lots they followed a schedule that ensured they were never close enough to another prisoner to allow any conversation. By the 1920s, this method of strict solitary confinement had been officially abandoned. In 1945, 12 prisoners (including Willie Sutton) actually managed to engineer an escape through a 97-foot long tunnel under the building in 1945.

Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary

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," audio tour 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 tour Eastern State Penitentiary with a guide, try the 75-minute Guide-Led Tour and Discussion. This tour not only delves into the history of the penitentiary, but also engages the group in a dialogue about criminal justice reform. These tours are limited to 25 people. As the Guide-Led Tour and Discussion schedule is subject to change, please visit Eastern State' website for more information. You can inquire about getting a reservation upon arrival; however, these guide-led tours do sell out, so you may wish to reserve space in advance.

Eastern State Penitentiary Events & Exhibits

Don't miss the Hands-On History interactive experiences! Throughout the complex you'll have the opportunity to take part in an activity, learn more about a special topic, or explore a space not otherwise open to the public. Experiences include the Hospital Block, the Soup Alley dining halls, the murals of the Catholic Chaplain's Office, and more. You can find the schedule for the Hands-On History experiences 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 thought-provoking art. Below are the permanent exhibits at the Eastern State Penitentiary:

  • Murals of the Catholic Chaplain's Office (Hands-On History experience): 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, 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." Capone's cell was noted to have fine furnishings, ornate rugs, and even a fancy radio. (Capone was an ardent fan of the waltz.)

  • Jewish Life at Eastern State: Jewish prisoners 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. Its companion 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.

  • Artist Installations: These ever-changing installations are inspired by Eastern State's history as well as the corrections and penal system and will amaze you with their depth and creativity.

Eastern State Penitentiary Tickets

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 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

Check Eastern State's website for the most up-to-date hours of operation.

In addition to visiting Eastern State during the day all year round, you can explore the historic cell blocks as the sun goes down with the evening program Night Tours: Summer Twilight on select summer evenings.

And Halloween Nights is another of the Eastern State Penitentiary's special events you won't want to miss! While it also requires a ticket separate from the one you'd purchase to visit Eastern State Penitentiary during the day, it's a Halloween fanatic's dream come true, offering terrifying haunted houses, historic tours, live entertainment, themed bars, and more seasonal fun. 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 unaffiliated 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 Eastern State Penitentiary.

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!

Header Image Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

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