Jailhouse Walk

Touring a Gothic prison where Al Capone once slept

By Eric Wills

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, the world's first large-scale penitentiary

Credit: Michael Cevoli, 2005

On a rainy January day, I stand before Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary for the first time, gazing up at its massive walls. The gray haze that blankets the city reinforces how imposing, and slightly unnerving, this landmark is: I have trouble pinpointing just where the 30-foot-tall walls end and the sky begins.

When it was completed in the 1830s, Eastern State loomed over Philadelphia like a fortress, its Gothic revival architecture sending a message to the citizens below: Stay on the straight and narrow, or else. It was also, as an early history of the penitentiary put it, "situated on one of the most elevated, airy, and healthy sites in the vicinity." Its mission was equally lofty. Eastern State, the world's first large-scale penitentiary, sought to reform its prisoners by subjecting them to isolation and forcing them to look inward for redemption.

Today, the view of Eastern State from downtown Philadelphia is obscured by the Fairmount and Spring Garden neighborhoods, with houses and a row of shops surrounding the 11-acre site. Its presence, however, is hardly diminished. "It's the most influential building in Pennsylvania, for starters," says my tour guide, Norman Johnston. An 84-year-old emeritus professor of sociology at nearby Arcadia University, Johnston has studied the penitentiary since the 1950s. "It was the first building from this part of the world to influence Europe. I can't think of another building here until the skyscraper that had such widespread influence."

Johnston leads me through the main entrance and down a narrow corridor. Sean Kelley, the site's program director, had warned me beforehand that I should wear wool socks. I'm glad I listened: The outside temperature is in the low 40s, but inside, it feels 10 degrees colder. It isn't just the cold, however, that makes me shudder. The penitentiary walls, eight feet thick at the base, are unyielding and imposing. One shrinks in their presence, and I begin to sense how isolated a prisoner must have felt from the bustling city outside.  

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