By: Jonna Royer
Behind Stone Walls: Touring Philly's Abandoned Prison
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia rises an imposing stone edifice the size of a city block, known as the Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison opened in 1829 on the premise that a true penitentiary should be a place “designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” It was the most expensive and modern prison of its time, planned purposely to intimidate by encompassing a medieval façade that implied physical punishment, even though the prison’s philosophy was to lead the prisoner to spiritual enlightenment through manual labor and isolation. The facility was state-of-the-art, featuring centrally heated cells with running water and flush toilets, conveniences that were not even present in the White House at that time.
Today, the building has been rescued from abandonment, carefully preserved in its semi-ruined state, and opened to the public. Be sure to bring your camera because the prison is an incredible place to take pictures. People travel thousands of miles for the opportunity to photograph the grounds, and the penitentiary often serves as the backdrop for engagement and wedding pictures.
Self-guided tours can be taken daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tourists are given an MP3 player and the audio guide allows you to travel at your own pace, lingering in areas that pique your interest, or skipping those that don’t. Guided tours are given at 2:00 every day, but are subject to availability, so it’s best to buy tickets for it ahead of time online. Included in the price of admission is the opportunity to participate in “Hands On History”; short demonstrations that allow tourists to partake in prison activities and cultivate a better understanding of life behind the stone walls.
Since the prison’s focus is education through history and culture, integrated throughout the tour are artist installations. Many focus on an aspect of prison life, such as Specimen, which was inspired by a prisoner at Eastern State Penitentiary who used his exercise periods to collect and preserve moth and butterfly specimens. The work of art that intrigued me most were paintings created by Philadelphia resident, Cindy Stockton Moore, who captured the portraits of 50 murder victims and hung them from the ceiling of a dilapidated cell. In the center of the cell, a wooden pedestal displays a ledger listing the names of the victims and a brief description of how they died, along with the names of their murderers. It gives life and meaning to those forgotten people who met such a tragic demise.
The prison also hosts a number of events including their spotlight series, which serves to provide a forum to the public for discussion about prison-related issues. In addition, there are fun events such as a masquerade party, which raises money for the prison’s ongoing preservation process. From September through November, the prison transforms into “Terror Behind the Walls”. Visitors make their way through six startling sections of the penitentiary while dodging zombies and ghouls. The normally intimidating setting becomes even more intense when viewed at night with the enhancement of special effects designed to terrify you.
I have visited Eastern State Penitentiary for both “Terror Behind the Walls” and its historic day tours. Although each visit differed greatly from the other, I was equally impressed with both. The prison is so full of antiquity that the opportunity to learn about its past should not be missed. However, it is also the perfect setting for a fun night of fright. Going to either event is certain to pique your interest about seeing it again.
Jonna is a travel writer and photographer driven by a curiosity usually reserved for kittens and small children. On sunny days, she can be found on her motorcycle with a backpack full of camera equipment looking for the perfect shot and meeting new friends along the way. Follow her adventures at JonnaTravels.com. Jonna@jonnatravels.com