It was operational from 1829 until 1971. The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment.
Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its innovative wagon wheel design. At its completion, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected, and quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
The prison is currently a U.S. National Historic Landmark,which is open to the public as a museum for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year 10 am to 5 pm.
Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary. Eastern State's revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the "Pennsylvania System" or Separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
The Pennsylvania System was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn System (also known as the New York System), which held that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment.
Originally, inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed be entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; only in a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. But 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 that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.
During its rein as a solitary confinement facility prisoners were not allowed to communicate with other prisoners or guards. Even uttering words aloud to themselves was strictly forbidden. Many Men once sane quickly slipped into madness. They were locked in their cells for all but one hour a day, wearing black hoods over their heads during those times they were allowed to venture outside. The purpose of this act was to eliminate communication between prisoners and guards. It also served to keep them disoriented in order to discourage and prevent successful escape attempts. It was reported that the guards wore socks over their shoes to muffle any potential noise indicating their presence.
Severe punishments included the water bath, the mad chair, the iron gag, and the hole. The water bath consisted of dunking the prisoners in baths of ice cold water and then stringing them up so that they were suspended from the prison wall. They were left hanging for the entire night. During the winter months layers of ice would form upon their skin.
The mad chair had tight leather straps that restrained movement. The straps would be fastened so tightly that they would cut off circulation to a majority of the body. In conjunction with that the inmates would often go days without food. Their skin would turn purple from lack of circulation and in many cases was known to drive men mad.
The iron gag was one of the most deadly of the punishments used by the guards at the prison. Death could result from significant blood loss. This severe punishment was often implemented when the no communication rule was violated. An inmate guilty of this crime was fitted with an iron collar that had an iron mouth piece which clamped down on the offender's tongue. The collar was then attached by a chain to his wrists and his arms were strapped high behind his back so that any movement of his hands or arms would cause the clamp to tear into the flesh of the tongue causing it to bleed. Too much movement would result in severe tearing and bleeding of the tongue. in this case an inmate could potentially die before his torment had reached the end. There is at least one documented case of a prisoner bleeding to death from this practice but others are suspected.
The hole was a large, underground pit dug under cell block #14. The most disruptive and defiant of prisoners were placed here sometimes for weeks on end. It was filled with cockroaches and rats. There was no light, no circulating air, and only a slice of bread and some water would be tossed down to the inmate. In the pitch blackness the prisoner had to pray that they got to these items before the rats and roaches. As a result of these conditions there was a high incidence of disease.
One of its most famous inmates was none other than Al Capone, was was incarcerated there on illegal weapons possession in 1929. During his stay, it is said that Capone was tormented by the ghost of James Clark, one of the men Capone had murdered in the infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre.
Other reported haunting activity includes:
- A shadow-like figure that scoots quickly away when approached.
- A figure that stands in the guard tower.
- An evil cackling reportedly comes from cellblock 12.
- In cellblock 6, another shadowy figure has been seen sliding down the wall.
- Mysterious, ghostly faces are said to appear in cellblock 4.