Explore Eastern State Penitentiary
Touring a penitentiary may not be on your Bucket List of things to do before you die. But if you’re in Philadelphia, I recommend a visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary. There’s history, intrigue and ruins that provide a different perspective on prisons, and gave me some great photo opps, too.
Here’s a rundown on what you can expect at the Eastern State Penitentiary – the world’s first true penitentiary – in Philadelphia.
Plan Your Visit to Eastern State Penitentiary
Most people visiting Philadelphia want to walk up Rocky’s steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Little do they know, that a short 5-10 minute walk from those steps is a historic penitentiary worth visiting.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was an active prison for 142 years. Roughly 80,000 men and women stayed in the sky-lit cells. But back in the day, the cells looked a lot better than what they look like now. The prison is in a sort is disrepair, but that adds to the atmosphere of what you’ll experience.
With tickets in-hand, enter from the door on the south side, along Fairmont Street. Once you are through the gate and into one of the prison wings, you’ll pick up an audio tour headset and follow the route through the cell blocks as noted.
Take a look at the daily schedule so you can be sure to take advantage of some of the free guided tours. For example, the medical wing is only accessible with a guided tour.
Take the time to listen to the audio guide as there aren’t a lot of signs that explain what you’ll get from the audio tour. Plan on about two hours for your entire tour.
Tips for Taking Amazing Photos
As a photographer, I was excited about the opportunity to take photos at the Eastern State Penitentiary. There are guidelines for those wanting to take photos, so review them online in advance so you aren’t surprised when you arrive.
I didn’t use a tripod, but that meant I needed to increase my ISO and risk some grainy photos. Luckily, the camera I was using – a Canon 6D – has a larger sensor, so it allows me to go higher on the ISO before grain becomes a problem. Because of that, I didn’t find my opportunities to be limited. But if you want to use a tripod, you are required to purchase an equipment pass for $10.
Tour the Medical Wing of the Prison
When you first arrive, be sure and check out times for the guided tours and plan your time there accordingly. When we were there, we misread the meeting spot and waited in the center lobby. We realized our mistake, we rushed to the spot and had to get the attention of the tour guide. She was nice enough to backtrack for a few minutes since only two other people were on the tour.
During the tour, you’ll learn about the hospital area of the prison. This included showers, x-ray rooms, an operating room, and more. The tour guide allowed us a few minutes in each section of the long hallway to take photos.
Since our tour group was small – there were five visitors, plus the tour guide – it went by really fast. Not sure if they are usually only 15-20 minutes, but that’s about how quick it felt. But I didn’t feel like we missed anything in that wing.
Notable Prisoners and Stories of Eastern State Penitentiary
The majority of Eastern State Penitentiary is in ruins. As you can tell from some of the photos in this article, it’s pretty rundown. However, there are a few notable places that have been fixed up.
The photo above shows a pretty posh cell, once occupied by gangster Al Capone, also known as Scarface. Legend has it that his cell was all decked out, much like what you see in the photo. It was restored to this condition earlier this year. The other inmates were not rewarded with such refined conditions, as noted in other parts of the prison.
Near the end of the tour, visit the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue. You can also learn about an inmate who dug a tunnel under the outer wall to escape.
One of my favorite prison blocks to visit included stories (via the audio guide) that shared firsthand accounts of inmates from the prison. It helped personalize the experience by hearing those stories.
One other exhibit talked about prisons today and highlighted the rising number of inmates. It was interesting to learn about the criminal justice system and some of the choices that have to be made when someone is caught breaking the law.
Address: 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Cost: Adult tickets are $16; Seniors are $14 and Students/kids (ages 7-12) are $12. Save $2 per ticket – Purchase online.
Hours: Eastern State Penitentiary is open year-round, Monday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.