Eastern State Penitentiary: The Most Influential Prison Ever Built


Article by Eric Petersen, GPA Ambassador.

Although many may not be aware of Eastern State Penitentiary’s impact beyond its famed Halloween festivities, the prison actually plays a central role in global penal history. Opened in 1829, the massive prison has served as a social experiment on both punishment and rehabilitation. The world’s first true penitentiary, Eastern State revolutionized the emerging system of government-run prisons that exists today, with over 300 prisons on 6 continents drawing upon the original blueprint in Philadelphia. From its famed silent hallways to its innovative physical structure, the Eastern State Penitentiary has attracted global attention from its inception.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British Empire began restructuring its prison system. While in earlier years prisoners would be exiled to distant colonies or locked away on prison ships, English administrators began modifying the older model of fortress prisons to accommodate the modernizing British Empire. In the colonies, a Quaker organization formed to address this development. Now known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the group attempted to infuse religious ideals into their prison model. According to President and CEO of Eastern State, Sally Elk, the founders wanted to create an environment “that was based in the quaker notion of healing from within.” When building the prison, cell blocks protruded from a central area, or “hub” of the prison, creating a “hub-and-spoke” concept that looks similar to a wagon wheel from above. Revolutionary in its design, each cell block is impressive, even to longtime CEO Ms. Elk, “You walk in the barrel vaulted cell blocks and it’s breathtaking. I think it’s just a very inspirational design.” With skylights in each room and hallway serving as the “eye of God”, natural light and isolation were key elements of what would later be named,the separate system. Although the Quaker ideals of Eastern State drew attention from international observers, its physical structure attracted thousands to the facility in its early days.

Even before the first prisoners arrived at Eastern State, the prison was known around the world. Astoundingly, 15,000 visitors toured the prison in its first year of operation, more than the number of visitors to Independence Hall, just a few miles away. Ms. Elk explained, “This building had central heating and plumbing, as well as ventilation systems, and was the first environmentally contained structure, comparable to a spaceship. Two men from France actually drew pictures, so images began to be published, so the visitors who came here before it was finished were official visitors, from governments and cities, who wanted to copy [the design] because of prison reform and the structure itself.” Eastern State had indoor plumbing before the White House, and thousands of international guests visited the facility to learn about the structural breakthroughs of the penitentiary.

The infrastructure attracted international visitors, and globally, hundreds of prisons were modeled from Eastern State’s blueprint. However, in the United States, the separate system was never as popular as the traditional Auburn System, first created at New York’s legendary Sing-Sing prison. Why was Eastern State’s model so influential abroad but never fully adopted in the United States? According to Ms. Elk, resources played a role, “[International officials] were coming here because there were two competing systems: the New York system and the Pennsylvania system. Visitors came to both places. The Auburn System was what you typically think of a prison. One corridor with cells stacked on top of each other. In the US, there was less money to spend on prisons and [there were] more prisoners. It was economical.” While in Europe governments could afford to isolate inmates for rehabilitation, cost played the deciding factor in the Auburn System’s dominance of American penal facilities.

Since its founding, the Eastern State Penitentiary has been possibly the most important prison ever built. Thousands of international visitors traveled to Philadelphia to visit the penitentiary, from European officials to writers like Charles Dickens. Its unique design inspired hundreds of copies around the world, permanently changing the nature of prisons and reform movements. Since its reopening as a museum just a few decades ago, more Americans and visitors from abroad have traveled to see Eastern State, with 239,000 touring the facility just last year. The impact and notoriety of the Eastern State Penitentiary was well known in the nineteenth century, and the current museum has regenerated interest in the prison, drawing visitors to Philadelphia from abroad for the second time in its history.