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The Silent Hell of Eastern State Penitentiary

Written by Matthew Copes 

Between 1929 and 1930, notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone spent nearly nine months in Eastern State Penitentiary. 

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Unlike his incarcerated counterparts, Capone’s private cell was purportedly furnished with a polished mahogany desk, tasteful paintings and a fancy phonograph machine.

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Likewise, after masterminding one of the country’s most notorious multi-state crime sprees, famed bank robber William “Slick Willie” Sutton spent more than a decade behind Eastern State’s imposing walls.  

Based largely on the Quaker and Enlightenment principles of humility, repentance and hard work, the ultimate aim of the institution was humane rehabilitation, but shortly after opening in 1829 it had garnered a much-deserved reputation for harshness, brutality and downright hopelessness.   

These days Alcatraz and Leavenworth are more well-known, but for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Eastern State Penitentiary reigned as the country’s undisputed “Big House.”

The Pennsylvania System

Known for its grand architecture and strict disciplinary code, Eastern State was arguably the world’s first true penitentiary. 

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From the outset it was designed to inspire penitence and remorse in the hearts of those unlucky souls forced to reside within its towering walls. 

Located just west of Interstate 95 near downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eastern State Penitentiary’s history dates back to the years just after the nation’s founding in 1776. 

Based largely on human-centered principles like compassion and tough love, Eastern State was among the new nation’s grandest social experiments, and the least desirable elements of society were its unwitting guinea pigs. 

Institutions of all stripes began undergoing radical transformations almost immediately after the Revolution, but without a common enemy to unite them, many Americans fell into lives of crime. 

Back then Philadelphia was the United States’ largest city, and the population at the Old Stone Jail on Walnut Street had swelled to four times what the small facility had been designed to handle. 

Violence was rampant and the sanitation was deplorable, but though larger prisons were built nearby, they too became overrun with new inmates.  

To address the growing problem, founding father Dr. Benjamin Rush established the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787.

Along with friend and supporter Benjamin Franklin, Rush began lobbying the state legislature to make funds available for a new penitentiary – one in which prisoners would be treated humanely while getting much-needed structure, guidance and reform. 

However, at the time Pennsylvania’s legislature had a lot on its plate, and because money was scarce and other projects were bigger priorities, the proposed penitentiary wouldn’t get funded until 1820.

With funds finally earmarked for the new penitentiary, the first order of business was to come up with a revolutionary design that would complement the facility’s stated aims. 

Of the architects who submitted proposals, Englishman John Haviland won the commission, for which he received the stately sum of $100 – about $2,600 today.  

While rival architect William Strickland’s proposal wasn’t selected, he was tasked with overseeing construction which began in the spring of 1821. 

After multiple delays, the prison finally opened in 1829 – the same year the state’s legislature passed a law allowing prisoners to be incarcerated in solitary confinement. 

In many parts of the world solitary confinement is common even today, but there’s near general consensus that it does little to rehabilitate prisoners. 

However in Benjamin Rush’s day it was believed that when administered according to established guidelines, silence, solitude and penitence could lead to lasting reform.  

Before the nation’s founding it was generally assumed that crime largely resulted from inherent biological flaws and/or innate character deficiencies.

However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries a number of new theories emerged, one of which supposed that crime was usually the result of environment. 

If so, it seemed logical to conclude that a change in surroundings could alter behavior. 

This groundbreaking new view of criminality was the foundation on which the Pennsylvania System was built. 

The Penitentiary 

Eastern State Penitentiary was made up of seven long cellblocks radiating from a central hub that was equipped with dozens of mirrors which collectively gave guards nearly unrestricted views of the various corridors. 

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Spread over 11 acres (4 hectares), the penitentiary was enclosed by four, 30 foot (9.1 m) granite walls that were nearly 12 feet (3.6 m) thick at the base.

Even taller masonry turrets were located at each corner as well as to either side of the main entrance.  

From these, sentries had panoramic views both inside and immediately outside prison. 

Together, the gothic facade, dreary gray walls and castle-style turrets were meant not only to intimidate, but to instill feelings of smallness and dread in both inmates and the general public alike. 

In this respect, it was thought that the facility itself might act as a deterrent to crime. 

It’s doubtful that this was the case considering how quickly the prison filled up, but at least on the surface, the plan to rehabilitate prisoners did make some sense. 

That said, it’d been tried before on far smaller scales, and the results had almost always fallen well short of expectations. 

Though the facility’s exterior was intentionally imposing, on the inside, arched windows and barrel vaulted corridors gave it a pious, churchy feel. 

Nearly all of the original cells measured 12 feet long, 8 feet wide and 10 feet high ( 3.6 x 2.4 x 3 m). 

Each housed only one inmate and had running water, a skylight, central heating and a toilet that actually flushed, all at a time when the White House was warmed by coal and had no indoor plumbing.  

In addition, inmates had private, open-air exercise yards attached to their cells.

On the downside, communication was strictly forbidden, and whenever inmates weren’t in their cells or exercise yards they were forced to wear cloth hoods to prevent them from gaining knowledge of the facility’s layout. 

In addition, since cell doors were barely four feet tall, prisoners had to stoop or kneel when entering or exiting. 

This likely served two purposes. 

First, bowing and kneeling were seen as physical manifestations of humility and repentance.

But on a more practical level, unruly prisoners were far less likely to attack guards when they weren’t able to stand upright. 

Apart from access to outside air and exercise space, prisoner’s cell time was generally restricted to reading the Bible, praying or attending to chores assigned by the staff. 

With a price tag approaching $800,000 – about $25 million today – Eastern State Penitentiary was among the most expensive buildings in the United States. 

History

Warden Samuel Wood welcomed Eastern State’s first prisoner in late October of 1829. 

Prisoner Number One was a 27-year-old African American farmer and alleged burglar Charles Williams who’d gotten a two year bit for stealing a $20 watch and a $3 gold coin.

The prison began filling up long before social and racial integration were the norm, and Eastern State’s new residents came from all races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The institution received its first female prisoner in 1831, and the following year the first escape occurred when the warden’s personal servant climbed out a window and over the penitentiary’s western wall.

The escapee was captured shortly thereafter, but though the prison had only been open for a few years, it had already earned a nefarious reputation. 

In fact, things had gotten so bad less than a decade later, that the first official investigation was launched to determine whether the rumors of poor treatment and abominable conditions on the inside were based on truth. 

But since the warden and staff knew when investigators would be “dropping by,” they were able to get the facility and prisoners in tip-top shape before their arrival. 

Unsurprisingly, little was found to be amiss, and after their departure things tended to continue much as they had before. 

Meanwhile, crime was so rampant in Philadelphia that the steady influx of prisoners warranted the construction of additional cell blocks. 

To minimize cost and maximize space, the new cells didn’t have private exercise yards, and additional units were built in the empty spaces between the original cells. 

Between the late 1800s and early 1900s more than 100 new cells in multiple cell blocks were added, as were a number of windowless underground cells. 

Dark, damp and with no toilets or running water, the latter largely marked the transition from rehabilitation to outright punishment.

Ultimately, due to controversy, runaway expenditures and the realization that precious few prisoners were actually being rehabilitated, the Pennsylvania System was officially abandoned in 1913. 

But though the system had proven itself woefully inadequate, the penitentiary itself would continue to operate for nearly six more decades. 

In the early 1920s all female prisoners were permanently removed and sent to nearby institutions. 

Among the last to go was the aptly named Freda Frost who’d been serving a 20-year sentence for poisoning her husband. 

By then even with the women gone, the prison that had been built to house 250 inmates held nearly 1,700.

Instead of quiet time for reflection in private cells, inmates had to “bunk up,” and they generally spent their days toiling in workshops, the kitchen or prison laundry, all of which operated around the clock. 

Over the next few years new guard towers, sirens and searchlights were added to cope with the growing and increasingly disgruntled population. 

By the mid-’30s conditions had become so tense and unbearable that inmates regularly set fires, flooded their cells, engaged in self-mutilation, destroyed workshops and staged small scale riots. 

Then in 1933 a full-blown riot broke out. 

Though it was put down quickly and forcefully, the 1933 riot was the turning point at which many previous supporters grudgingly admitted that not only had the Pennsylvania System failed, but the facility had too. 

Yet without a better solution, there was little else to do but continue on and hope for the best. 

In 1945 after more than a decade behind bars, Willie Sutton and eleven other men managed to escape through a tunnel they’d dug over the previous months. 

Dipping nearly 100 feet underground at its lowest point, the narrow tunnel through which the men crawled deposited them near the corner of 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue.

But though freedom was nearly at hand, all of the escapees were eventually caught in short order. 

For their troubles, all had years added to their sentences. 

In 1953 the facility’s name was changed from Eastern State Penitentiary to the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia.

Three years later Cellblock 15, or death row, became the institution’s last major addition. 

1961 was notable not only for desegregation, but for the largest riot in the prison’s history that was set off by an inmate named John Klausenberg. 

After tricking a careless guard into opening a neighboring cell, the men inside streamed out, assaulted the guard and freed many of their neighbors. 

All told hundreds of rioters took control of large portions of the facility, one of which was the central control hub. 

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At the warden’s request, the governor sent in 50 state troopers clad in riot gear and armed with shotguns, tear gas and snarling K-9s. 

The terrifying insurrection was put down quickly, but in its wake the calls to close the prison once and for all intensified. 

The inevitable happened in 1970 when all remaining prisoners were sent to other facilities both in and out of the state. 

Shortly after the last prison bus departed, the institution was unofficially abandoned, though the Philadelphia Streets Department used the grounds to store equipment and construction materials. 

Meanwhile the unmaintained facility began to crumble as vandals smashed windows and tagged the walls with graffiti, while looters took anything of value. 

An urban forest began growing in the halls and cells, moisture turned much of the ancient concrete to porous sludge, and the prison was overrun by stray cats who apparently didn’t find the conditions nearly as harsh as the inmates had. 

In 1974 Mayor Frank Rizzo proposed demolishing the prison to make way for an entirely new criminal justice center. 

Though Rizzo failed to drum up support for his idea, in 1980 the City of Philadelphia bought the facility from the State of Pennsylvania for approximately $400,000. 

The following year a number of proposals were considered that would have rezoned the site for development and commercial use that would be overseen by a newly established Development Authority.

In 1988 a group of architects, preservationists and historians collectively known as the Eastern State Task Force was formed to consider the best course of action. 

But though redevelopment seemed like the most sensible solution, Mayor Wilson Goode urged the Redevelopment Authority’s members to reject commercial proposals on the basis of the institution’s historical significance. 

Then in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s a number of charitable trusts began funding efforts to preserve the facility. 

Since 1994 the facility has been open for guided tours, though due to the state of the structures visitors were required to sign liability waivers and wear hard hats. 

Hard Time

At least officially, the Pennsylvania System prohibited corporal punishment, but many of the guards, counselors and administrators at Eastern State Penitentiary must not have gotten the memo. 

In fact, they quickly set about instituting a strict regime of physical and psychological punishment that bordered on sadism. 

In addition, punishments were often arbitrarily doled out for the slightest infractions, and sometimes for no reason at all. 

This inconsistent and unpredictable application kept some inmates in line, but it made others misbehave and lash out more than they might have otherwise. 

Either way, it’s now generally agreed that the chaotic regiment had almost no rehabilitory effect. 

One of the most notorious methods of punishment were winter water baths, in which inmates were soaked and lashed to courtyard walls until ice formed on their skin. 

Those who found themselves in the mad chair were strapped in the sitting position for days on end, until nearly all blood flow to their limbs was cut off. 

The iron gag was even worse. 

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With their arms, torsos and legs strapped to chairs that had been bolted to the floor, inmates had tight chain collars wrapped around their heads and mouths for hours or sometimes days. 

This punishment often caused severe tearing of the lips and tongue, but when it failed to tame rambunctious inmates, most holdouts were sent to “the hole” under cellblock 14. 

Here, the worst inmates stayed locked for weeks or months with no light, no human contact, and only modest amounts of bread and water for nourishment. 

After a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary shortly after it opened, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the conclusion that though life on the inside was undeniably solitude, hard work and ample time for reflection were exactly what most inmates needed. 

A few decades later the penitentiary welcomed another distinguished international visitor – Charles Dickens. 

Mr. Dickens generally disagreed with his predecessor’s assessment. 

In part, he concluded that Eastern State Penitentiary was a dreary and all-around awful place where little reform was possible. 

Upon viewing row after row of hopeless creatures interned in tiny dank cells, he likened the experience to being buried alive. 

Notable Inmates

In more than 150 years, inmate Leo Callahan was the only prisoner to ever escape from Eastern State Penitentiary without being recaptured.  

Sentenced a lengthy term for assault and battery with intent to kill, in 1923 Callahan and five other inmates used a makeshift ladder to scale the east wall under the cover of darkness. 

Callahan’s accomplices were all eventually recaptured, but the wiley ringleader never resurfaced. 

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After being convicted of killing a Pennsylvania State Trooper in 1937, Victor “Babe” Andreoli arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary to serve a life sentence for 1st degree murder. 

He escaped in 1943 by hiding in a delivery truck leaving the prison. 

Several weeks later Andreoli had only made it as far as Chester, Pennsylvania less than 20 miles away, where police gunned him down in front of stunned onlookers at a small roadside diner. 

Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber was another well-known killer who entered Eastern State in 1942.

The leader of a Phildelphia-based murder ring, Bolber and his cohorts specialized in convincing disgruntled housewives to knock off their husbands using arsenic, after which the gang and widow divied up the proceeds from the deceased’s life insurance policy. 

Between 1932 and 1937, the group was apparently responsible for more than two dozen deaths. 

Resigning himself to his fate, Bolber helped establish Eastern State’s synagogue, after which he became a model prisoner. 

Tours and Movies

For many proponents of prison reform, Eastern State was the pinnacle of progressive principles. 

It’s estimated that nearly 300 prisons around the world were based on the Pennsylvania System of incarceration that had been pioneered at Eastern State Penitentiary. 

In the end however, the lofty vision turned out to be an epic flop. 

Though the prison closed in 1970, it’s now a popular destination for history-minded locals as well as out-of-state and international tourists. 

Despite the facility’s macabre history, it attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors annually.

Eastern State has also been featured in a number of blockbuster movies in recent years. 

In the 1995 sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis, the facility’s centrul hub was portrayed as an eerie mental institution. 
Then again in the 1998 movie Return to Paradise, one of Eastern State’s most rundown cells stood in for a Malaysian cell in which the character played by Joaquin Phoenix’ went insane before being executed.

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