Eastern State Penitentiary Photography Guide

“Paint peels from prison walls like skin falling from the bones of a long dead corpse.”

Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka

PIXEO Photo Locations - Blog Icon

Standing sentinel at the dividing line between North and South Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary. Outside, the tall walls of the prison are built of intimidating castle stone, glaring down at passersby with harsh judgement. Inside the walls whisper the maddening poetry of hopelessness and forgotten horrors. The whitewashed cells and halls slowly corrode, paint peeling from them like skin falling from the bones of a long-dead corpse. Here in Pennsylvania, this mausoleum of mass incarceration remains — a monument to an almost forgotten era where humanity was not so humane. It is discomforting, decomposing and lucky for us, open to the public.

Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Carol M. Highsmith
Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

About Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors on October 25th, 1829. Heralded as the world’s first true penitentiary, it quickly became a template for mass-incarceration featuring many modern advancements and amenities. The prison even had running water and heat before the White House.

On opening, it became somewhat of an attraction for notable celebrities and wealthy elites. Charles Dickens, for example, was one of many visitors who toured the facility in the 19th century. These visitors often chatted with the prisoners in their cells, although friends and family were not permitted to visit.

Decay and Ruin at Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Sarah Trobee
Decay and Ruin at Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Sarah Trobee

The Pennsylvania System

In the early 1800s, prison life was terrible. Beatings and death were commonplace. Prison guards and officials turned blind eyes to atrocious violence while lining their pockets with profits from smuggled contraband. A movement began to reform these cruel practices, and Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first to attempt new, more humane approaches to prisoner rehabilitation.

Dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or “separate system” this new approach to prisoner management intended to rehabilitate criminals based on religious concepts of penance. Predicated on a belief that isolation and seclusion would be a prisoner’s best chance of reform, extreme measures of solitary confinement began. Prisoners were cut off almost entirely from human contact and lived in silent isolation. They were hooded when moving outside their cells, and prison guards even wore wool socks over their shoes to maintain the quiet ambience.

Isolated inmates paid their debt to society in one of 450 cells, each accessed by a narrow, low door intended to make the inmates bow as they entered. Within the austere cells, a small glass skylight would permit light. These were the inmate’s clocks, distinguishing night from day and known as the “eye of God.” They served as a reminder to the inhabitant that even when the guards weren’t present, God was always watching.

Hospital Wing Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Themurph2 CC by-sa
Hospital Wing Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Themurph2 CC by-sa

At the onset, the intent was not to punish the prisoners but rehabilitate them. The designers believed that with no communication, the prisoners would be self-reflective and become penitent for their crimes. Idealistic as this was, it did not become a reality. Cruel and inventive psychological and physical tortures rapidly developed. A method for chaining a prisoners tongue to their wrists was devised that would tear their flesh if they struggled. The worst prisoners would spend as many as two weeks in “The Hole.” The Hole was a pitch-black, frigid cell in the basement where they would have little food, no light, and no human contact. The humane approaches to prisoner reform envisioned quickly devolved to the worst manifestations of our nature.

Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Block - Photo by Shelleykoon CC by-sa
Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Block - Photo by Shelleykoon CC by-sa

The End of the Pennsylvania System

In 1913 the solitary confinement approaches of the Pennsylvania System were abandoned in favour of more modern prison philosophies. Prisoners no longer lived a torturous lonely existence and began interacting with other prisoners again. Renovations were undertaken and life in the prison yards began to resemble the penal life we are more familiar with today.

The prison continued operation until it closed in 1971. Prisoners were transferred to Garteford Prison and the city of Philadelphia began considering options for redevelopment. Initial plans for a mall or high-end condominiums surrounded by prison walls eventually fell flat. By the 1980s the facility became home to hundreds of stray cats, and forests began to grow within its walls and even within the cell blocks. Eventually, in 1994, the jail reopened the now neglected and forgotten doors to the public.

Today, plantlife emerges from the ruins, and the romantic sounds of chirping birds intermingle with the soft hum of visitor chatter. The prison has morphed to a sacred space, a sombre reminder of mankind’s inhumane attempts at humanity. We are reminded that we are monsters despite the peaceful and at times idyllic ambience. These walls bore witness to us at our worst, and the crumbling ruins carry the disease of our misdeeds with them into the modern era.

Famous Inmates

Al Capone's Cell Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Booth Kates
Al Capone's Cell Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Booth Kates

Like many of America’s notorious prisons, infamous underworld luminaries called Eastern State Penitentiary home for a time. Al Capone and notorious bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton are but two of the best-known guests. Over time Eastern State Penitentiary would become well known as much for its ambitious designs as its famous denizens.

Women and men found themselves serving out their time within the prison. In 1924 even a dog would be incarcerated within the prison walls. Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot sentenced Pep “The Cat Murdering Dog” to life in prison after murdering the cherished cat of the Governor’s wife. Prisoner number C2559 would serve out his life sentence at Eastern State Penitentiary, without hope of parole.

Or at least that’s how the story goes. Recent research suggests that an imaginative reporter concocted this story. In reality, it was determined that Pep was a well-loved pet brought in by the Governor to improve morale.

That research notwithstanding, upon taking a close look at the mugshot of the vicious black lab you may see a deeper meaning. Gazing deep in those unrepentant eyes, we believe, lies the soul of a serial cat murderer.

Pep the Cat Murdering Dog - Eastern State Penitentiary Archives

Photographing the Eastern State Penitentiary

Abandoned Prison Barber's Chair in in Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Danny Fowler CC by-sa
Abandoned Prison Barber's Chair in in Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Danny Fowler CC by-sa

Stepping inside the walls of the Penitentiary, the photographer’s hair will stand on end. The prison evokes a flooding mixture of chemical emotions washing from searching eyes to shutter finger. Adrenaline, sorrow and an exciting rush of voyeurism all conspire to create a sense of photographic giddiness. In almost every cell and room, disquieting dioramas reveal themselves and each begs to be photographed.

Shafts of narrow illuminate the back walls of the prison cells. Providing a fantastic mood and feel to photographs, the remnants of cells are often populated with a sole toilet or bedframe. Compositionally they are masterful tableaus of horrific decay. The cells contrast the collapse of antiseptic utilitarian spaces with the warm light of day and persistent plantlife. The prison is a playground of morbid delights for the travelling shutterbug.

Getting There

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in Philadelphia Pennsylvania at the location shown below.

Click to see Eastern State Penitentiary's Location on the PIXEO Map

Know Before You Go

  • Eastern State Penitentiary is in the heart of Philidelphia and very easy to find and access. Public Transit direct to it is also easily accessible.
  • It can be found at 2027 Fairmount Ave and has a parking lot adjacent to it.
  • The facility is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
  • Anticipate crowds during peak tourism seasons. Mondays and Tuesdays are the best times to visit to avoid the crowds and arrive as soon as it opens to avoid shooting around other visitors.
  • Tickets are $14 for adults (plus a $10 equipment fee if you bring a tripod).
  • Large portions of the prison are open for exploration all day. But some areas (such as the hospital) are opened and closed for short periods of time throughout the day.
  • The prison is not heated or air-conditioned, so dress appropriately. Also, leave the flip flops at home.

Photography Tips

  • Bring wide-angle lenses and fast camera gear. The natural light of the space is incredible, but can be very dim.
  • Variable ND filters may aid in removing people from photographs by using long exposures.
  • A remote trigger will prove invaluable if you do long exposures.
  • Do not touch or move anything within the prison itself.
  • Memberships include photography tours and workshops. The cost for a membership is $50 and may be worth the cost.
Central Guard Tower Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Dudva CC by-sa
Central Guard Tower Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Dudva CC by-sa

Photography Rules

Visitors are welcome to photograph the prison and can do so during regular public hours. A few photography rules must be followed and can be found on the Penitentiary’s website. Essentially nudity, model shoots and videography are not permitted during public hours. Photographers who wish to bring a tripod (which we recommend) will need to purchase an equipment pass for $10.

Enterprising filmmakers and photographers can also rent the building after hours for private photography sessions. Pricing and contact information can also be found on their Photography and Film Making page.

Exit Sign Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Ashim D'Silva
Exit Sign Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Ashim D'Silva

Conclusion

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a must for the travelling photographer that finds themselves in Philadelphia. While not necessarily a pure #URBEX location it remains photographically rich. We can think of no better way to spend half a day than engrossed in the history and photographic possibilities that can be found within its walls. Troubling, tantalizing and terrible it will definitely find a home on your photography bucket list.

We curate the very best photo locations from around the world. Explore the world with our Photo Locations Map, and take it on the road with the PIXEO App for iOS. 

Other Amazing Photo Locations

Latest Locations Added to PIXEO