Just over two hours from the Washington, DC area, in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, are the decaying remains of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), which was operational from 1829-1971. It was an enormous structure. In fact, at the time, it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever built in the United States.
The prison was the nation’s first penitentiary. In theory, its inmates were to make penance while held in a form of solitary confinement. This solitude, combined with vocational training, was supposed to lead the prisoners to rehabilitation and to live a newly found moral life. ESP’s approach was heavily influenced by religious views. It was designed around a hub with spokes, similar to a wagon wheel.
The inmates were physically separated from each other. Although ESP’s methods were controversial and in competition with other approaches to running a prison, it played a central role in how over 300 prisons worldwide treated their inmates. The practice of solitary confinement at ESP was abandoned in the early 20th Century because of a shortage of space.
Today, the prison is a museum. Visitors will see the decayed state of the building and its many cells. They will also see an effort to retain some of the more colorful aspects of the prison, including a barber’s chair and a dentist’s chair, the overhead lights in the hospital, and even a synagogue.
But perhaps its main feature is the cell that was occupied by the infamous gang lord, Scarface, better known as Al Capone. The Capone cell is the only one in the prison that is maintained in the condition it was in during his incarceration. It was obvious that the relative luxury of his cell was highly unusual and spoke volumes of his influence even behind bars.
ESP’s other famous inmate was Willie Sutton, who, along with others, dug a 97-foot tunnel and escaped in 1945. While Sutton’s notoriety was not as great as Capone’s, he will be remembered forever for his witty response to the question of why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is.”
Photos by Gary J. Kohn. To see more of his photos, go to: