Where Light and Dark Intersect

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is a magical place where the manipulation of light and the darkness of prison life intersect. This intersection contrasts the beauty of shadows, reflections and light against the backdrop of scenes of prison life for inmates who resided inside the penitentiary.

General History of Eastern State Penitentiary

On October 25, 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary opens. Its first inmate: “…Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on Thigh. Broad Mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labor. Received by Samuel R. Wood, first Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary….”

Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary. Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system”. This system encouraged separate confinement as a form of rehabilitation. The warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day.

The Pennsylvania System was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn system (also known as the New York system). The Auburn system stated that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and prisoners could be subjected to physical punishment (Sing Sing prison was an example of the Auburn system).

The Eastern State Penitentiary, now closed, is located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, PA. The prison was operational from 1829 until 1971.

Notorious criminals such as Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton were held inside its innovative wagon wheel design. Eastern State’s radial floor plan and system of solitary confinement was the model for over 300 prisons worldwide. The building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States. Here is a link to notable characters who resided inside the prison over the years of operation:

To get a perspective of the massive size of the prison, the prison’s massive exterior walls are 30′ high walls composed of hewn and squared granite, which taper in thickness from 10′ at their bases to 2.75′ at their tops. The prison encompasses an entire city block and the length of each wall is the prison wall is 1/2 mile.

The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It is open to the public as a museum for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year, 10 am to 5 pm. The prison complex was designated by the World Monument Fund as one of the one hundred most important endangered landmarks in the world.

General layout of the penitentiary.

General ESP layout
General Prison Layout

Many locations throughout the penitentiary are closed to the public because of safety or renovation reasons. An interactive map identifying the key locations of the penitentiary can be accessed here: https://www.easternstate.org/explore/online-tour  . A timeline of the life of the prison can be found here: https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline

The drawing to the left shows the penitentiary laid out in a wagon wheel fashion. The cell blocks, like spokes on a wheel, all lead to a central location. The outbuildings housed the prison kitchen and other support activities. In addition, outdoor recreation space was provided where prisoners could play baseball, basketball and participate in other activities during their short time out of their cells. Barber shops and chapels were located within the cell blocks, as were common showers.


Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison. Only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.

inner Cell Door
Inner Cell Door at ESP
Outer Cell Door
Outer Cell Door at ESP
Looking through the cell door
A look through the cell door to the living space of a prisoner at ESP











Cell Blocks

A look down the long hallway of a cellblock.

The neo-Gothic architectural design of the prison cells instilled fear into those who thought of committing a crime.  The original design of the building included seven, one-story cell blocks.  By the time cell block three was completed, the prison was already over capacity. All subsequent cell blocks had two floors. Toward the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily built due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell block 15 housed the worst behaved prisoners, and the guards were gated off from this cell block entirely. These cell block wings dominate the prison complex. Cell blocks 4 through 15 were composed of two levels.  These cell blocks consisted of 1,000 individual cells at the time of closing, housing 1,700 inmates at its maximum. This was about 7 times the initial population of 250 prisoners.

This series of photographs highlights some of that elegance juxtaposed against the grime reminders of why this structure was there in the first place.

Second story cellblock
A view of the second story of cells.
Cellblock hallway
Another view of the cellblock from the second floor.
cellblock today
An unrenovated cellblock as it appeared when closed.



The Hub
The hub where all the cellblocks meet.
















A Look Inside and the Play of Light and Dark

The prison cells were sparse. They consisting of a bed, work desk, and a toilet flushed once per day. To grasp what life was like in the prison, listen to Audio Stop 4 here: https://www.easternstate.org/explore/audio-tour

On the day of this visit the light coming through the small ceiling windows was magical and dramatic, casting shadows on the inner workings of the cells.


The “Barber Shop”

These barber shop chairs hold many of secret conversations between inmates and the barbers. The barbers provided the inmates a distraction from the day-to-day grind of cell life. Again, the play of light as it cast rays on the barber chairs highlights the stories once told by inmates who occupied these chairs.


The Most Famous Inmate

One cannot end the tour of Eastern State Penitentiary without a discussion of it’s most famous inmate. Al Capone was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1929 after an arrest outside a Philly movie theater for carrying an unlicensed, concealed .38 caliber revolver. The Philly courts were tough and sentenced Capone to a maximum one year in prison at Eastern State Penitentiary. He served seven months.

During his seven month stay in the prison, the prison staff was very accomodating to him. In stark contrast to the general prison cell, Capone’s prison cell was decked out with fine furniture, beautiful rugs, wall paintings and a fancy radio which he used to listen to waltzes. His cell as it looked during his stay is on display inside the penitentiary.



In Closing

Eastern State Penitentiary is part of abandoned Americana. It allows us to look into what it might have been like to be a prisoner in America’s foremost prison of its time. For photographers it provides a fascinating juncture where light and dark meet to tell a story. A story of how light can impact a mood, how it can capture a moment in time and convey to the casual observer what it must have been like living inside an American prison during the turn of the 19th century. If you are in Philadelphia, take the time to visit on icon of our past.


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