PHOTOS: Visiting Philadelphia’s haunted prison, the Eastern State Penitentiary

Crumbling watch towers, rusted bars and dank cells reserved for Death Row inmates– these are the sights you’ll encounter when visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary. You can almost hear the ghostly wails of convicts when you walk through the ruins of this 19th-century prison.

This haunting attraction is (somewhat surprisingly) located in the heart of Philadelphia, and has become one of the city’s spookiest destinations.

Visiting the prison on a frigid afternoon this winter, I was struck by the haunting beauty of Eastern State. Scroll down for original photos of the world’s first “penitentiary.”

Urban prison

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Eastern State Penitentiary was founded in 1829 with a unique goal: to reform criminals through solitary confinement. Shuttered in 1971, it now lays in ruins, a reminder of a failed experiment in American prison reform.

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Its castle-like exterior– dotted with towers– may look majestic, but it hides a maze of small, overcrowded cells where quite a few prisoners went insane.

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When it was constructed in the 19th century, Eastern State Penitentiary was located well outside Philadelphia’s city center. However, as the city limits expanded well beyond the Penitentiary, this prison for hardened criminals ended up in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It is located just five blocks from the city’s premiere attraction, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Touring the prison

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Guided tours of the ruins are available year-round– even on the coldest winter days. Temperatures dipped below freezing during our January visit; we stayed warm by sipping complimentary hot cocoa and standing in patches of sunlight as we toured the grounds. To her credit, our trusty guide Patricia did not skimp on any details and completed the full tour despite the arctic chill.

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The cells at Eastern State Penitentiary have been ravaged by nature in the 40 years since the prison was shut down. Tree branches stretch across the narrow cells, originally designed for one prisoner but soon holding half a dozen. Rusted lamps, bed frames and toilet seats are the only signs of human life in these dismal rooms.

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The best way to describe the Eastern State Penitentiary experience is “haunting.” It’s easy to imagine prisoners going mad in these dark, moldy cells.

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The sight of these crumbling cells reminded me of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, which is a former Khmer Rouge prison and torture center. The Eastern State Penitentiary, however, was founded with noble intentions: city leaders wanted to reform the crowded prison system and aimed to rehabilitate convicts instead of simply punishing them. The original cells boasted running water and central heat at a time when even the White House did not have these amenities.

Inside the matrix

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Patricia, our guide, explained the history of the prison and the reform movement as she led us into the heart of the Eastern State complex. Laid out like a wheel, the command center looks out onto the seven original cell blocks and provides partial views of eight more cell blocks, created to deal with overcrowding at the prison.

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It’s astounding to think that Eastern State was open and housed prisoners as recently as 40 years ago, given the state of these cell blocks.

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Art exhibits

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The grounds of the Eastern State Penitentiary are home to several fascinating art installations. These works were created especially for the prison; some touch on themes like “confinement” while others are inspired by the physical layout of the cell rooms. Before your visit, check out the Eastern State Penitentiary website for information on current exhibits.

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Al Capone’s cell

Almost all of the rooms at Eastern State have been left to nature, with one exception: Al Capone’s luxurious prison cell. The mobster known as “Scarface” clearly received special treatment at the prison; his room is decked out with a frilly lamp, an ornate desk set and other fine furnishings.

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Visiting the prison

The Eastern State Penitentiary is conveniently located in central Philadelphia and offers 1-hour guided tours throughout the year.

Location: 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA (corner of 22nd & Fairmount), Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300
Cost: Adults: $12, Seniors: $10, Students & Kids: $8, Members: Free. Entry is also included in the cost of the CityPASS, which provides access to six Philadelphia attractions for $59 (adult).
Age restrictions: Recommended for ages 7 & up
Getting there: The prison is a five-block walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and can be reached by car (there is on-street metered parking), SEPTA public bus or by private tour bus.

For more info

Our visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary was made possible by the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, which provided us with two CityPASS tickets for the purpose of this review. Follow the Convention & Visitors Bureau on Twitter (@philadelphiacvb) or Facebook for information on Philadelphia attractions, news and events.

About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.