The Sound of Silence: Touring America’s Most Historic Prison

Inside Eastern State Penitentiary's historic Cellblock 7
Film projected onto the façade of historic prison-turned-museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Film projected onto the façade of the historic prison-turned-museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Photographer: Living Condition, LLC

Before the 19th century, most prisons were filthy, corrupt, and disorderly. They offered lawbreakers little chance to reflect and “repent” of their wrongdoings since prisoners were too busy trying to avoid disease, starvation, and abuse. The Eastern State Penitentiary, located in the residential Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, was designed to remedy the ills of the prison system and offer inmates a chance to be “penitent” for their crimes.

Opened in 1829, it cost a staggering $800,000 to build and included amenities, like private toilets and exercise areas, and three hearty meals a day. While it may sound more like luxury accommodations than a prison, the underlying infrastructure of the facility negated any comforts that were offered. In fact, it is widely believed that the prison drove men to madness.

Known as the “separate system,” Eastern State restricted any contact or interaction between inmates. Even guards wore felt on their shoes to muffle sounds and make their rounds without giving away their presence. Prisoners were expected to eat, bathe, exercise, and read the Bible in utter solitude. While the intent was to allow inmates to reflect on their wrongs and repent, in reality, the silence and isolation were more than most men could bear.

Inside Eastern State Penitentiary's historic Cellblock 7
Inside the prison’s historic Cellblock 7 – Photographer: John Van Horn

Eventually, Eastern State Penitentiary was converted to a more conventional prison where inmates were allowed to communicate and interact. It went on to “host” such infamous criminals as “ScarfaceAl Capone and “Slick WillieSutton.

Prison cell with furniture, oil paintings, and other decorative items
Al Capone’s newly restored cell, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia – Photographer: Erin Davis

The facility was abandoned for many years (and nearly destroyed) before it opened to the public for history tours in 1994. Today, visitors can take audio-guided tours of the prison and take part in several events throughout the year, including a Haunted Halloween Tour.