Whilst we were guests of Eastern State Penitentiary for this adventure, all opinions are most definitely our own.
We walked the first long corridor of Eastern State Penitentiary, with it’s high ceilings, frequent doors, and its eerie silence, broken only by our voices and the head set I was wearing. It was easy to imagine being locked up in silence and this is how it was in the beginning. A state of the art prison system, where, once prisoners entered it’s doors, they were kept in solitary confinement, never seeing or speaking to anyone. When it was necessary to move from their cells they were blindfolded so as not to see another person by mistake.
Once the world’s most famous and expensive prison when it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the world’s first true penitentiary. The building was designed to make prisoners feel penitence or true regret. Many of America’s famous criminals spent time at Eastern State including Al Capone, who’s cell is still there to see to this day.
We stopped outside this cell during our visit, to have a look. It was closed to the public for renovation but there was information outside it about his 8 month stay in 1929. His cell was surprisingly pleasant looking with its fine furniture, oriental rugs and a cabinet radio!
The prison itself was impressive to explore. It was surprisingly big inside with long cell blocks, like spokes on a bike wheel, all meeting in the middle. Here you could stand and see down each corridor from the surveillance hub, the center of the prison. Outside were the remains of small individual cell gardens and also the big outdoor recreational space used later on. Around the edge, looming over us at all times, was the 30 foot high and 10 foot wide wall running half a mile around the perimeter.
We took the audio tour, a self guided tour where you are given a headset and have the option to listen to whatever bits you want by pushing the numbers when you see them. The audio commentary was actually very interesting and included accounts from previous prisoners and accounts of how the prison changed over the 142 years that it was in active use. It didn’t stay a solitary confinement prison and by 1913 the Pennsylvania System was officially abandoned. We listened to accounts of prisoners describing time during the 1940’s when they were allowed to socialise with each other and play chess and sport.
We saw the prison Synagogue which was the first built in any American prison and was used from 1924 until the prison closed in 1971. We also saw the hospital ward where sick prisoners were cared for.
I think what struck me most wondering around the impressive and eerie ruins, was the fact that children were also locked up there, in the same manner as adults and treated as such!
Our visit was informative and interesting and Eastern State Penitentiary was unlike anywhere we had seen before. I’m glad we took the time to go and see it and I’d say it is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in the area.
As well as the self guided tour and exploring by yourself, it is possible to join a hands on history demonstration. These last about five minutes and are led by expert Eastern State tour guides. They include How to open a cell door and Exploring the Underground Punishment Cells.
Taking an autistic child to Eastern State Penitentiary?
The historic site is not recommended for any children under the age of seven.
It was very quiet and when we went, this was when it first opened on a week day, seemed like a good time to visit.
The fact they have the audio tours and we were free to see the prison at our own pace was great.
How much they got from their visit would depend on their level of understanding and interest.
The prison is very big and children who wander would need to be kept close.
As the prison is a ruin, there are obvious issues but again, it would depend on the child.
My son, who was interested in the subject, enjoyed his visit and seeing the prison. He liked the head set and being able to choose what he listened to and he liked visiting a quieter attraction with less annoying sensory input than normal.
The heated inside exhibition about prisons today had buttons to press and it took me a while to get my son to leave that room!
There is a large courtyard outside to get some space if needed. In this courtyard is a giant 3D bar chart depicting growth in the world’s and the United States incarceration rates since 1970.
There are toilet facilities.
You can watch video footage of our visit on the vlog, here.
Eastern State Penitentiary historical site is located at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. It is open 7 days a week, 10am – 5pm except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and New Years Day. For more information please call (215) 236-3300.
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