Abandoned Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA

Back to Abandoned Page

The following photos were taken at Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, PA.  ESP is
open to the public, but one of my Meetup groups got special permission to gain access to areas
closed off to the public.  

Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, ESP is considered to be the world’s
first true penitentiary, despite the fact that the Walnut Street Jail, which opened in 1776, was called
a “penitentiary” as early as 1790 . The word “penitentiary” derives from the word “penitence.” ESP's
revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or Separate system,
encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day,
and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.

Wardens and senior managers were selected and trained more on the basis of adherence to
principles than what was necessary for the daily operation of an eleven-acre institution housing
hundreds of prisoners.  Left to their own interpretations of the principles, there were huge
differences in decision-making from one situation to another at all levels of management.  While
every warden and member of the board of trustees claimed to be acting in the best interest of the
inmates' successful return to society, the practices they endorsed (and the brutality they
sometimes exercised) showed dramatically different definitions of what was seen as necessary to
prepare prisoners for release.  Robert McKenty and William Banmiller are identified as wardens in
the early and mid-twentieth century (respectively) who felt that paternalistic guidance, a helping
hand, and a second chance were the best approaches to changing prisoners for the better.  
Herbert "Hardboiled Herbie" Smith, Walter Tees, and John Groome are other twentieth century
wardens who are described as believing in the opposite approach.  They felt it was their
responsibility to ensure strict discipline, provide military regimentation, and control every possible
aspect of the prisoners' days and nights.

On April 3, 1945, a major prison escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous
Willie Sutton) who over the course of a year managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot tunnel under
the prison wall to freedom. During renovations in the 1930s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-
dug tunnels were also discovered.

ESP was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

The prison was closed and abandoned in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to
Graterford Prison, located in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The City of
Philadelphia purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping it. The site had several
proposals, including a mall and a luxury apartment complex surrounded by the old prison walls.

During the abandoned era (from closing until the late 80s) a “forest” grew in the cell blocks and
outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats.  In 1988, the ESP Task
Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. In 1994, ESP opened to
the public for historic tours.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Both women and men were housed in the institution for the first ninety-four years. Most notable inmate:  Al
"Scarface" Capone (photo of his cell, which was quite different from the cells of other prisoners, is
below or can be found here).

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.  (Click on the large image when it opens to display it in a
smaller size.)  You can also view a pdf slideshow (takes a minute to load).
Counter