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How Franklin Shaped Our Prisons

The more I travel along the East Coast, the more I am amazed to see how the "Founding Fathers" influenced our world. For example, I visited Eastern State Penitentiary with virtually no knowledge of its history, and I was amazed that Dr. Benjamin Rush and Ben Franklin had ties to the penitentiary and shaped our prison systems.

The History

In 1776, the Walnut Street Jail stood on what is now the location of Eastern State. This jail served as an overflow location for Philadelphia's Old Stone Jail, demolished in 1784. In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, considered the first prison reform group. Benjamin Frankly joined soon after; this group shaped correctional practices in the United States and still operates today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society. They aimed for reform while in prison and introduced solitary confinement of all prisoners to "prevent hardened criminals from corrupting first-time offenders and would provide all inmates with the space needed for serious reflection and reform. " At the time, it was considered revolutionary and became the model across the United States and Europe, though society later learned the severe consequences of isolation.

By 1821. the Walnut Street Jail, which had 16 cells, was to be built into a prison capable of holding 250 inmates. This was such a big deal that even The Marquis de La Fayette visited in 1826, though the penitentiary was not yet finished. Finally, on October 25, 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary opened; its first inmate, Charles Williams, stole one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, and one gold key. His sentence was two years confinement with labor.

Although Eastern State has been seen as revolutionary, by 1842, the idea of solitary confinement began to sour. Charles Dickens, who visited the penitentiary in 1842, said, "The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong..." In 1913, solitary confinement was abolished.

As needs grew, so did Eastern State. Eastern State eventually housed women and even Al Capone in 1929 for a few months. In 1958 the penitentiary was designated as a historic property, and in 1965 the Federal Government designated it a National Historic Landmark--which is crazy to think about as the prison was still housing inmates. By 1970, the decaying structure finally closed and remained abandoned for over a decade before becoming a museum in 1994.

My Visit

Touring Eastern State was one of the best tours I have done. It was an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi, which was well done. You can tour the bulk of the prison, but like any historic location--other areas are closed to the public, primarily due to safety concerns. After the initial audio tour is completed, there are many stops within the prison that you can explore on your own to include Death Row and Capone's luxury cell.

The halls remain decrepit, as do the cells, which adds to the aura lingering in the air. I don't know how much I believe in those things, but places like Eastern State provide the vibes. If that interests you, this is a place you'll love even if it is not a place that interests you; the history behind it and how it became a model for prison systems worldwide--will!

They offer day and night tours; based on availability. I visited during the day (as seen in my photos). I am curious about both their night and Halloween tours. The most remarkable thing about Eastern State is how misplaced it is in what is now modern Philadelphia. Proving, yet again, how extraordinary history is.


  • Get your tickets in advance:

  • There is a parking lot next to Eastern State; reserve your spot in advance as it is a public lot and not reserved for the museum.

  • Eastern State is an easy walk to the Rocky steps and statue at the Philly Art Museum. If that is something you want to see, tack it on to your visit in that area.

  • Eastern State is NOT within walking distance to historic Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the Museum of the Revolution Museum are located. I ended up driving further into the city and finding other parking closer. You can also stay in the lot near Eastern State and take another form of transportation to those sites

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