Eastern State Penitentiary- A 200 yr Old Look at Justice in America

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Apparently there was a time in America when punishment for your crimes was that you get to go live in a castle for a bit.  Of course it was not all that glamorous, but the exterior of the Eastern State Penitentiary is stunning.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadephia, a 200 year old look at the American justice system.

Eastern State Penitentiary almost makes me want to commit a horrible crime.

Eastern State created the penitentiary system in which inmates were kept in solitary confinement regardless of their crime.  The idea behind this was that each inmate would have time to focus on his crimes and pray for redemption.  The idea was well-intentioned, as it had a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, but it turns out solitary confinement makes people go crazy.  Luckily, mostly due to prison overcrowding, by 1913 solitary confinement had been abandoned for a more modern “shove ’em all in” approach.

I originally wanted to tour Eastern State Penitentiary because of my bizarre love of ghost stories, but when I first got inside and was greeted by Steve Buscemi’s lovely face, I realized this was going to be even better than I thought!

Steve Buscemi audio tour at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelpia? Don't mind if I do!

I came for the ghost, but I stayed for Steve Buscemi.

While I can neither confirm nor deny the prison is haunted, however the long corridors were certainly haunting.

The halls of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

The hospital wing of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

The hospital wing of the Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary was a functional prison until alarmingly recently (1971!).  Aside from the sizeable layer of dust, many of the cells look just as they did when inhabited.

Cell inside of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

The cell that used to house Al Capone is in especially good shape, though it was quite a bit nicer to start with.

Al Capone's Cell at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

Al Capone’s Cell at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

Of course, not all of the cells weathered the years that well.

Cell inside of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia

Seriously, tell me there’s not a ghost in there!

Most of the appeal of a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary is poking around an old haunted prison, but the tour itself was surprisingly insightful, and not just because of Steve Buscemi’s soothing voice.

A side by side at the Eastern State Penitentiary highlighting the stark decline is sexiness among prison gangs through the years.

A side by side at the Eastern State Penitentiary highlighting the stark decline is sexiness among prison gangs through the years.

The prison yard is where things really heat up, and not just because of the spectacular view of the Philly skyline.

View of Philly from the Eastern State Penitentiary prison yard.

Here there is a large graph highlighting yet another way that the USA has some catching up to do with the rest of the world.

A graph at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia showing the rate of incarceration per capita in the USA for every decade from 1900-2010

A graph at the Eastern State Penitentiary showing the rate of incarceration per capita in the USA for every decade from 1900-2010

These are some seriously alarming statistics.  What happened?  Many blame the “war on drugs” that started in the 1970, and it certainly seems to coincide with a drastic increase in prisoners.  But wait, it gets worse…

A thought provoking look at the racial make up on US prisons today courtesy of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

A thought provoking look at the racial make up on US prisons today

This graph at the Eastern State Penitentiary shows the number of people per capita in countries around the world... that's the USA way up there at the tippy top in case you're having trouble seeing all the way up there.

This graph shows the number of people per capita in countries around the world… that’s the USA way up there at the tippy top in case you’re having trouble seeing all the way up there.

So why is America the worst at this?  We weren’t always.

This graph at the Eastern State Penitentiary shows the number of people per capita in countries around the world...The USA wasn't always the worst!

The USA wasn’t always the worst!

Apparently there was a pretty grim turn in the 70’s, but there’s hope… at least that’s what this blank spot in the chart indicates.

Thought provoking question from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

I would love to see the system change, but I think we may have to wait more than 4 years.

At the end of the tour everyone is given a chance to offer solutions and insights of their own, though some are decidedly more Hitlerian than others.

Guest leave comments about their takeaways from a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Guest leave comments about their takeaways from a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Ah, the beauty of free speech.

Of course every tour likes to end on a positive note.  Here we get to meet the most adorable inmate!

Pep the dog, a famous inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary, was surprisingly incarcerated for cat murder and not stealing hearts.

Contrary to popular belief (of my own), Pep here was not arrested for stealing hearts….. it was actually cat murder 🙁

PRO TIP: Avoid the gift shop.

I’m not much of a collector, but it was nearly impossible walk out of there without this charming collection of souvenir plates of America’s worst prisons.

How is this a thing and why don't I own it?

How is this a thing and why don’t I own it?

So obviously I recommend a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, and I’ll also be asking for all of these plates this Christmas.

22 thoughts on “Eastern State Penitentiary- A 200 yr Old Look at Justice in America

  1. Janet Holt

    Very interesting and insightful. Thanks for the look inside!

  2. Five star accommodation for criminals but that is one castle I never want to stay in. Poor Pep, what did he ever do to deserve that? 🙂

  3. What a strange and creepy place. I had seen the photo of Al Capone’s cell but didn’t realize it was there. Seems like a an insightful visit!

  4. Incredibly interesting post! Our incarceration rate in the US is definitely alarming especially considering that we’re the “land of the free.” I also loved Al Capone’s cell versus the average cell. I’m sure it’s a relatively accurate depiction of his accommodations and not all just for the tourists.

  5. Looks an interesting place to visit. You may have started a new category ” Prison Tourism”. Funnily enough, we are headed to the old Melbourne gaol in Melbourne Australia in a few weeks time. They also say its haunted by the ghost of Australia’s most famous bushranger Ned Kelly . we will see lol

  6. Creepy yet interesting at the same time! 😛 I would definitely like to check this out. I’m into the ghost stories as well 😉

  7. Wow! How interesting. The jail cell of Al Capone looked so much better than the rest. Would love to be able to check this out

  8. What a scary place. Would be okay to visit for an hour but def. not longer…. ( I do not believe in ghosts though so I assume it is not haunted 🙂

  9. Ha, those plates are great. The perfect Christmas present 😉 Thanks for sharing and happy travels!

  10. Wow, I think it would actually be quite fascinating to visit a place like this – I think that visits like these, and when we went to Alcatraz, are incredibly sobering, but it does make you aware of what used to happen in the past. I’m actually starting to find that I’m really fascinated by prison tourism – must be the history buff in me!

  11. Prisons are same everywhere. Haunting and story tellers. I have a seen a few in different countries and they make us sad.

    Very poignant and insightful post.

  12. I’ve never heard of this but I can only imagine what the walls would say if they could talk. The bit about the commemorative plates is really funny and wow that poor dog!

  13. I’m dying of laughter over those plates! I absolutely need to take this tour. It’s just the kind of creepy and historical activity that my best friend and I would love. Girls trip to Philly!

  14. The plates…the photo of sexiness. LOL! What a great post.

  15. Pep in prison to keep the prisoners company is such a good idea, but I hope they dont mistreat it.

  16. I visited Eastern State Penitentiary last year and loved it, which was unexpected. The history was fascinating but the architecture was stellar. Great place to get neat photos, too.

  17. That looks like a fascinating tour, I have been to Alcatraz twice and was completely haunted by it. Also visited a jail in Ireland and learned all the history there. Your pictures are excellent!!

  18. What an amazing place for photos! And you get to have an audio tour from Steve Buscemi?!? Sold 🙂

  19. That was a pretty interesting tour! It’s crazy to see the rooms just as they were.

  20. Wow, that is an excellent post: so informative and interesting to read (which is not always come together). The visual presentation of the USA’s incarceration rate is staggering. I am a visual person, so hearing or reading numbers in the news haven’t produced the same effect as seeing comparative graph towering all other countries. Not something to be proud about. So sad :(. On a brighter side, Pep is so cute. I am pretty sure he was the best inhabitant there ever.

  21. shiv

    I am definitely bookmarking this article, it is highly informative!

  22. Wow, so much history! This place looks really interesting. Very cool read! Thanks so much for sharing this!

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