Ever done time at a penitentiary?

I know what you’re thinking, of course not Danielle! Alright… Alright…hear me out will you, maybe you should reconsider.

After touring the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin last year, I discovered that I really dig prison museums. Kilmainham’s tour guides did a phenomenal job walking us through the gaol, explaining its historical importance and strong tie to the Irish struggle for independence. Kilmainham left such an impression on me that I’ve been searching for prison museums ever since. When I discovered that the first American penitentiary was less than two hours away in Philadelphia, I couldn’t wait to visit.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site stood out like a beautiful sore thumb. It reminded me of an old fortress or castle which is actually super-duper rare to see in the U.S. Right across the street from the penitentiary was a strip of small shops and restaurants. To give you more context, it took me half an hour to walk from Philly’s city center to the penitentiary – yep, it’s really that close.

Why is Eastern State Penitentiary so flipp’n cool?

In the 18th century, prisons were holding pens for murders and thieves. The key thing to remember here is that punishment and mutilation were at the core of the American prison system. Things changed drastically when Philadelphian influencers conceptualized a prison that encouraged penitence, hence the term penitentiary.

The goal of the penitentiary was to inspire remorse and change the criminal’s heart, but there’s a lot of debate over how successful this ideology really was. Nevertheless, ESP became a model for prisons in the 19th century and there are over 300 prisons worldwide modeled after it.

At the time of construction, ESP was one of the most expensive buildings in the country and it is often praised for being the first modern building in the U.S. The original design could hold 250 inmates and had seven cell blocks that met at the center of a rotunda. Each inmate had his or her own cell and they spent their sentences in complete isolation.

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Inside an unrestored cell – abandoned for years before turning into a museum.

The one-hour self-guided audio tour does a really good job detailing ESP’s history and philosophy. In addition to the main tour, there are also plenty of exhibits to explore within the penitentiary. If you want to take a deeper look at escapes, gangs, women, or famous inmates like Al Capone, there are plenty of added stops on the tour. If you’re looking for an in-person experience, staff members lead Hands-On History tours that you can attend.

ESP was so beautiful and raw especially the unrestored cells. Many of the cells haven’t been touched for almost 50 years. There were only a handful of refurbished cells that displayed what life would be like as an inmate and you can actually go inside – very cool.

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A cellblock in Eastern State Penitentiary

This is one of my favorite photos from inside the penitentiary. I took this photo from a small balcony on the second floor and it was the perfect vantage point to see the entire cellblock in all its glory. I loved how the skylights illuminated the dark and eerie hallway and how it highlighted the arches. From this photo you can also see how small the doors to each cell really are – you literally have to hunch over to enter a cell.

I think a lot of people visit prison museums because it offers a behind the scenes look at an institution that was off-limits to the public for so long. I could only imagine how lively a cellblock was in its heyday – I’m thinking Prison Break and Orange is the New Black.

So I’ll ask you again. Ever done time at a penitentiary? I hope you will all say yes one day! There are over 100 prison museums worldwide and I’m looking forward to visiting a few more in the future.

Have YOU been to a prison museum? What surprised you? 

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