30 Days of Philly Arts

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30 Days of Philly Arts: Go directly to jail - for a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary - Day 16

30 Days of Philly Arts: Go directly to jail - for a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary - Day 16 Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary, which housed prisoners from 1829 to 1971, is a National Historic Landmark. In 1787, while helping to put together the Constitution of the United States (tomorrow is Constitution Day!), Benjamin Franklin convened a committee to deal with the miserable conditions in which prisoners were kept in Europe and America.


It took a few decades for Pennsylvania to take the lead in prison reform and endow a new word with meaning: penitentiary, a place designed to cause prisoners to reflect on their crimes and repent rather than being simply punished. This method was derived from Quaker principles and prisoner isolation was strictly enforced.

As word spread of the new concept and the innovative building in which it was being employed, visitors came from all over the world, including Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville and British writer Charles Dickens, who wrote opposing opinions about the methods of Eastern State.

Tourists came, too, in the nineteenth century, and they are still visiting the Penitentiary. They come in huge numbers for the annual Halloween Terror Behind the Walls tour, but tours of Eastern State are possible every day of the year.

There's a self guided audio tour of 45 minutes to several hours with a soundtrack of the Voices of Eastern State--guards, wardens, inmates--narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. There are newly expanded Hands On History tours in which guides help visitors recreate unique experiences from playing bocci as if you were a prisoner to unlocking cells as if you were a guard. Both these activities are included in the price of admission.

Eastern State Penitentiary also houses historical and art exhibitions. There's a ongoing collection of some 500 specimens of insects and invertebrates modeled after the collecting of a late 19th century inmate. TowerCam! shows the guards' perspective from the top of the prison. There's a cell block covered in knitting using 25,000 yards of yarn, and several more arts installations and exhibits covering the history of Eastern state, like the refurbished synagogue and a recreation of the luxurious interior of gangster Al Capone's cell.

ESP has been featured as a setting for various movies and music videos. It was used in the Bruce Willis movie 12 Monkeys and in the film Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen. The Dead Milkmen filmed the video for "Punk Rock Girl" there, and it was used in the Tina Turner video for the song "One Of The Living" from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome movie. Watch that video below.

More information here on visiting this remarkable Philadelphia landmark (not recommended for children under the age of seven).

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