Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary

In the nearly 14 years I lived in Philadelphia, I have never visited the famed Eastern State Penitentiary which at one point housed the notorious Al Capone.

The Penitentiary when it opened in 1829 it was the most modern public building in the United States with running water and heating and became a model for future prisons. Its focus was on solitary confinement and silence and housed both male and female inmates.

Charles Dickens, after visiting the Penitentiary on a visit to America in 1842 wrote the following on the solitary confinement he witnessed :

“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Having never visited a prison before, it was haunting walking the walls of the cell blocks and peering into the tiny cells and thinking of all the souls that had past through those walls. With very limited time outside, I cannot  imagine the mental toll the daily confinement takes.

The Penitentiary which closed around 1971 is now a historic site and museum open to the public for tours and hosts a haunted house during Halloween from which I hear is very scary and I can see why. It also provides sobering statistics on incarceration in the United States.