Eastern State Penitentiary

Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor," Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary's wagon-wheel, or "radial" floor plan.

Some of America's most notorious criminals were held in the Penitentiary's vaulted, sky-lit cells, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone. After 142 years of consecutive use, Eastern State Penitentiary was completely abandoned in 1971, and now stands, a lost world of crumbling cell blocks and empty guard towers.


Walnut Street Jail, built to relieve the overcrowding and scandalous conditions at Philadelphia's Old Stone Jail, receives its first prisoners. Engraving: Jail in Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 1800. William Birch (1755 - 1834).


A "Penitentiary House," with a capacity of 16 single cells, is built in the Walnut Street Jail, and an experiment with day and night solitary confinement begins.

Photo: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Engraved by J. Thomson, 1805. From an Original Picture by J.A. Duplessis.


Dr. Benjamin Rush (left) founds the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first prison reform group in the world. Benjamin Franklin (below) joined the group on August 13, 1787. This group survives today, more than two centuries later. Now called the Pennsylvania Prison Society, it promotes correctional reform and social justice. Photo: Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, 1818.



After many years of lobbying from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Legislature approves funding to build the Eastern State Penitentiary. The new prison will hold two-hundred fifty inmates.

Four architects submit designs for the massive new prison. John Haviland (left), a British architect who had settled in Philadelphia, wins the commission. He receives a one-hundred dollar prize for his design. For more information on John Haviland, read Pioneers in Criminology: John Haviland or contact The Independance Hall Association.

Rival architect William Strickland (below), whose design had been rejected, is chosen to oversee the construction. Photo: Portrait of John Haviland. John Neagle, (1796 - 1865).


Construction begins on the foundations and walls. William Strickland (left) is fired and John Haviland appointed to oversee the construction. Photo: Portrait of William Strickland, 1829. John Neagle, (1796 - 1865).


The Marquis de La Fayette (left) visits the unfinished Penitentiary.

1829 April 23rd

Legislation specifying "separate or solitary confinement at labor" is passed.

Many leaders believe that crime is the result of environment, and that solitude will make the criminal regretful and penitent (hence the new word, Penitentiary). This correctional theory, as practiced in Philadelphia, will become known as the Pennsylvania System.

Plans are finalized to prohibit all contact between prisoners at Eastern State, the world's most ambitious Penitentiary, now nearly ready for its first inmates.

Masks are fabricated to keep the inmates from communicating during rare trips outside their cells. Cells are equipped with feed doors and individual exercise yards to prevent contact between inmates, and minimize contact between inmates and guards.

1829 October 23

Eastern State Penitentiary opens.

Its first inmate: "...Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on Thigh. Broad Mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labor. Received by Samuel R. Wood, first Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary...." Photo: Original feeding aperture for an individual cell in cell block three.


Work completed on Block Three, the last of the original single- story cell blocks. Work begins on Blocks Four, Five, Six and Seven, all two stories to accommodate the increasing number of convicts. Block Seven (left) completed in 1835.

First female prisoner is received.

French Commissioners Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville visit to study the new correctional system. Photo: Cellblock seven corridor at Eastern State Penitentiary, 1890’s. From Cassidy, 1897.


First Escape. An inmate, who served as the warden's waiter, lowers himself from the roof of the front building. Once captured, this inmate will escape in the same manner in 1837. Photo: Plate showing Eastern State Penitentiary, from a dessert service, c. 1838-42, with views of Philadelphia. Made at the Rihouet factory, Paris (1818-89).


First of several investigations into the prison's finances, punishment practices, and deviations from the Pennsylvania System of confinement.


Original prison completed under the supervision of its architect, John Haviland. Covering an area of eleven acres, with state-of-the-art plumbing, sewage systems, and four-hundred fifty centrally-heated cells, Eastern State Penitentiary is an architectural marvel.

Governments throughout the world model prisons after Eastern State. Tourists travel by horse and buggy from Philadelphia, more than a mile away, to see the building.

Samuel Cowperthwaite, Convict No. 2954, created this lithograph (left) in 1855 depicting the building from above. Note that Philadelphia has not yet grown to reach the Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary has cost nearly $780,000, one of the most expensive buildings of its day in the United States.


Charles Dickens visits the United States to see Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He will later write, "The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong...." Engraving: The Solitary Prisoner, 1870’s. From Charles Dickins, Pictures from Italy and American Notes for General Circulation.


First full-time school teacher hired. The central rotunda is photographed by William Langenheim and Frederick Langenheim in 1855 (left). Note the change in the central tower in later years (see 1958).


Over 10,000 tourists visit Eastern State Penitentiary, the most in a single year (until historic tours begin in 1994). Photo: Admission ticket for Eastern State Penitentiary, c. 1835.

1874 to 1894

Four new cell blocks, without attached exercise yards, are constructed in the spaces between existing cell blocks. Photo: Cell Blocks 8 & 9.



Completed in 1911, cell block 12 (left), wedged between Blocks 6 and 7, is drastically different from the blocks that preceded it. Built of light colored reinforced concrete, this block consists of three floors with 40 cells each. There are no arched ceilings and, instead of sky lights, each cell has a narrow window. Photo: Cell block twelve. From Annual Report, 1912.


The Pennsylvania System of confinement with solitude is officially abandoned at Eastern State. The system had actually broken down decades earlier. Photo: Inmates making shoes in a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, late nineteenth century. From Cassidy, 1897.


Female prisoners removed to new prison at Muncie.

In July, inmate Leo Callahan (left) and five accomplices armed with pistols successfully scale the east wall after holding up a group of unarmed guards. More than one hundred inmates escaped from Eastern State during its 142 years of active use. Callahan is the only one never to be recaptured. All of Callahan’s accomplices were apprehended, including one that made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii.

1924 January

Inmates eat for first time in group dining halls. Tableclothes were provided on Sundays and holidays, and the holiday decorations were described as a "morale building factor." Photo: Interior of one of the two dining halls adapted from former exercise yards.

1924 August 12

Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.


Construction begins on Cell Block Fourteen (left), Eastern State’s second three story cell block. Any space between the cell blocks is now nearly gone. The Penitentiary, intended to hold 250 inmates, now holds 1,700. Photo: Prisoners constructing the third floor of cellblock fourteen. From Annual Report, 1926.

Inmates from Eastern State are bussed to work on a new "farm branch" of the prison at Graterford, Pennsylvania.

1929 - 1930

Chicago gangster Al Capone spends eight months at Eastern State Penitentiary. The Philadelphia Bulletin snapped this photo (left) as Capone was led away.

An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929, describes Capone's cell: "The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk.... On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish..." (See 2000 for a picture of the restored cell).


Inmates set fires in their cells and destroy workshops in a riot over insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness.

Photo: Front gate surrounded by police officers in 1933.


Inmates at Eastern State riot over low wages. Prisoners short-circuit electrical outlets, start fires, and cause other disturbances. Warden Smith puts down the riot with a strong show of force.

Photo: Portrait of Warden Herbert "Hardboiled" Smith.


12 men escape through a tunnel that emerges at Fairmount Avenue and 22nd Street. Prison plaster worker Clarence Klinedinst designed and built most of the tunnel. At the time of the escape Klinedinst had only two years left to serve. Most of the men are caught within minutes.

Klinedinst (after re-arrest, left) is out for two hours, and has ten years added to his sentence for prison break. Bank robber Willie Sutton (below) takes credit for planning the tunnel.

Pennsylvania Legislature recommends abandoning Eastern State Penitentiary.


Eastern State Penitentiary becomes the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia, or SCI-PHA.


The City of Philadelphia certifies Eastern State Penitentiary an historic property.


Cell blocks are desegregated.


Inmate John Klausenberg tricks a guard into opening the cell of another inmate. With the cells open, the inmates overpower the guard and begin the largest riot in the prison's history. Several hours later, a large force of police, guards, and state troopers reclaim the prison. The riot fuels discussions to close Eastern State.

Photo: Central Rotunda following the riot in 1961. Gift of the Biedermann Family.


Federal Government designates Eastern State Penitentiary a National Historic Landmark.

1970 January

Eastern State Penitentiary closes.

Most inmates are sent to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. While the Penitentiary's electrical and mechancial systems are in terrible shape, its walls and paint are in perfect condition. Photo, 1971, Dr. Norman Johnston.

1970 & 1971

City of Philadelphia uses Eastern State to house prisoners from the county prison at Holmesburg, following a riot there.

1971 to mid-1980s

Eastern State is all but totally abandoned. Philadelphia Streets Department uses grounds for storage. Vandals smash skylights and windows. An urban forest grows in the halls and cells. Dan McCloud, the last city caretaker, continues to feed a family of stray cats on the property.


Mayor Frank Rizzo suggests demolishing Eastern State to construct a criminal justice center.


City of Philadelphia takes title to the building, paying the State of Pennsylvania just over $400,000.


The city transfers Eastern State Penitentiary to the Redevelopment Authority to seek proposals for commercial use.


Eastern State Task Force, a group of architects, preservationists and historians, is formed. Mayor Wilson Goode urges the Redevelopment Authority to reject all proposals for commercial use of the property.

First limited group tours of the building.


With generous funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, stabilization and preservation efforts begin.


Eastern State Penitentiary opens for historic tours on a daily basis.

More than 10,000 visitors attend in the first year.


With funding from the William Penn Foundation, permanent museum exhibits are constructed (left) and a marketing campaign begins. An on-site art exhibition, Prison Sentences (below), receives international attention. A cultural performance series begins. The site is featured in The New York Times, Art in America and on the BBC, C-SPAN and PBS. Attendance nearly doubles.

Eastern State’s arched cell blocks and central rotunda are transformed into a mental institution in the movie 12 Monkeys, with Brad Pitt.


With funding from the city of Philadelphia, construction begins on Eastern State’s first major building project – the stabilization of the Administration Building (below).

The city grants the Pennsylvania Prison Society a ten-year license to develop the historic site. The World Monument Fund includes Eastern State Penitentiary on its list of the one-hundred most important endangered landmarks in the world. Photo: Virgil Marti For Oscar Wilde, Prison Sentences, 1995.Pioneers in Criminology: John Haviland


Eastern State portrays a Southeast Asian prison in the movie Return to Paradise.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of preserving the Penitentiary and opening it for tours, is formed.

Work begins on the second major roofing project, which placed a new structure over the existing Cell Block 1 roof, skylights and exercise yard areas. The new roof has twenty-five year EPDM roofing.



April: The cell of famous gangster Alphonse "Scarface" Capone, who spent eight months at Eastern State in 1929, is restored to its former glory (below).

November: The reconstruction of the Cell Block One "Link" (left) is complete, making the entire cell block available for tours. For the first time, attendance exceeds 50,000 visitors in a single year.


January: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. assumes the Prison Society's Concession Agreement with the City of Philadelphia.

May: Completion of The Lives of Two Prisoners: Inmates No. 7 (1829) and E2686 (1958-1969), a permanent exhibit of two restored cells.


With funding from a Save America’s Treasures Grant, work begins on a $1 million building project to put a new roof on the Rotunda and six of the "links."

For the first time, attendance exceeds 65,000 visitors in a single year.


Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site celebrates the tenth season of tours by opening several dramatic new vistas in the prison's cathedral-like cellblocks, and by introducing of a state-of-the-art "Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour. For the first time, visitors hear cell doors slamming, guards issuing orders, televisions and radios playing from the cells. They even hear the 1961 riot unfold in chaos around them. In addition, the historic site will be open nearly twice the number of days as in previous years.


With funding from the 2004 Annual Appeal, work begins to stabilize the Penitentiary's Greenhouse.

For the first time, attendance exceeds 100,000 visitors in a single year.


Cellblock 7 opens to the public for the first time.

"Pandemonium," a site specific art installation by internationally acclaimed audio artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller opens in Cellblock 7.

A reenactment of the famous 1945 Tunnel Escape takes place in front of E.S.P. on Sunday April 3 at 7:00 a.m., the exact 60-year anniversary. The season-long commemoration of the tunnel's 60th anniversary continues with an archeological investigation of the tunnel, as well as an exhibit outside of Cell 68 in Cellblock Seven, the site where 97-foot long tunnel originated. Photo: Gallery of Cellblock 7, 2002. Courtesy of Sean O'Boyle.


The Historic Site opens for tours seven days a week from April 1st through November 30th.