Doing Penance

It wasn’t until I read the introductory notes in the guide to the Eastern State Penitentiary that I recognised the root of the word penitentiary.  The building in Philadelphia was designed to enable those who were imprisoned to quietly contemplate their crimes, do penance and be released as reformed men who had recognised the errors of their ways.

Long corridors of single cells were built to meet in a central point from which a single member of staff could look down each one to ensure they remained clear of people.

Each cell had a bed as well as a toilet which was flushed once a day.  A skylight provided lighting and a door at the end led into a small yard to allow the prisoners exercise.

Al Capone stayed here for a bit, his cell looked slightly different, there are no records explaining why though.


The inmates who served in the World War are commemorated on this plaque, including the one who lost his life.

Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 and started falling apart.  When it was threatened with destruction the city was petitioned to preserve it and it is now maintained by a charity as a stabilised ruin.  This means it will not be re-furbished and will continue to fall apart in some places, however all those areas open to visitors have been re-roofed to ensure visitors are not a risk.

This is kitchen and dining area, only opened to small groups at a time and unlikely to be refurbished beyond this.

It hosts both artists and opinions on penal reform, including this installation of an exact replica of a cage at Guantanamo Bay, including the arrow pointing to Mecca and a breathing mask used to keep the Q’ran off the floor of the cage.  A few cells further on are these images made only from the dust of the crumbling building.

It is worth a visit both for those interested in penal reform and in landmark preservation.

PS – while I was there, the film crew for Maze Runner was also there.  I have now read the book and recommend it to people who enjoyed The Hunger Games or Divergent


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