Spotlight on: Eastern State Penitentiary

It’s no secret that we at The Mike McCann Team love Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls, the attraction that has become synonymous with Halloween in Philly. We’re pretty sure that all Delaware Valley residents have heard of Terror Behind the Walls, but Eastern State is way more than a haunted house! The former prison is a world-famous piece of local history. Opened in 1829, Eastern State operated for well over 100 years until 1970. It was built as the first ever penitentiary – designed to foster regret in its inhabitants for their criminal pasts. Some iconic American outlaws spent time at Eastern State, including Al Capone!

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could see the cell where Capone resided in the penitentiary? Wait for it- you can. Eastern State is open for tours 7 days a week from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Adult general admission tickets are a bargain at $14.00 each, and you can save $2.00 if you buy online in advance. Here’s what you get for your money:

“The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour is self-guided and narrated by Steve Buscemi. You’re in the driver’s seat of this tour and can move at your own pace. The audio tour also gives you the option to stop along the main route and explore subjects about the prison’s history that interest you, like escapes, riots, and more. The audio tour usually lasts about 35 minutes.

Hands-on History is exactly as it sounds. Throughout the penitentiary, there are short demonstrations led by guides, designed to make your visit come to life. Learn how to open a cell door, visit the prison’s hospital, punishment cells, synagogue, or chaplain’s office. Hands on History grants you access to areas of the penitentiary that are otherwise off-limits. Most of these activities take place during specific intervals throughout the day, so you can be flexible and join during your audio tour, or consult the schedule to create a plan.

Access the building’s artist installations. We were especially intrigued by this aspect of the tour and reached out to Eastern State to learn more. We spoke with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. He gave us the details on how artists are chosen by the penitentiary, and what we can expect in the upcoming year. Kelley also shared with us his thoughts on Eastern State’s role in the 21st Century, and the events he recommends visitors check out!


McCann Team: How are artists and their installations chosen for Eastern State Penitentiary?

Sean Kelley: Artists are asked to submit proposals that include a detailed narrative of their proposed installation and how this work will contribute to the visitor experience. Artists are selected based on how they either explore Eastern State’s history or connect the complex history of the building to today’s criminal justice system.

We look for artist installations that challenge our visitors and even our staff to think more deeply about the penitentiary and its role in the history of the American criminal justice system and correctional policies today.


MT: Are there permanent installations on view? Are there any installations from 2017 or earlier that visitors can expect to see through 2018?

SK: While artist installations are not permanent parts of museum programming, there are a number of returning works that have been a fixture on the tour for years. Returning installations include visitor favorites like Cindy Stockton Moore’s piece Other Absences, which displays portraits of individuals murdered by men and women who would eventually be incarcerated in Eastern State.

Another returning installation is Apokaluptein16389067:II by Jesse Krimes. His piece reflects his personal experience while incarcerated, where he created a 39-panel surreal landscape on bed sheets which were mailed home individually.

A returning piece that connects to the prison’s history is Specimen, by local entomologist Greg Cowper. The artist draws inspiration from the collection of 18 species of butterflies and moths gathered by an Eastern State prisoner in 1889. Cowper expands on this inmate’s collection with more than 500 specimens of insects and invertebrates found on the grounds today.


MT: The current artist installations appear focused on the experience of prisoners in America. What theme or concept will be present in the upcoming installations?

SK: Summer 2018 will see three new artist installations in the cellblocks that feature a broad range of topics connecting Eastern State’s history to complex issues we face today. Artist collective  Photo Requests from Solitary invites men and women held in solitary confinement to request a photograph of anything at all, real or imagined, and finds artists to create the images. Visitors to the historic site can view requests from these inmates and are encouraged to fulfil the image requests and upload them to the project’s website.

Artist Rachel Livedalen’s piece, Doris Jean, displays newspaper articles and photographs from the high-profile case of heiress Doris Jean Ostreicher, whose illegal abortion and subsequent death led to the imprisonment of Milton Schwartz at Eastern State in the 1950s.

Lastly, artist collective Provisional Island has installed a handmade radio transmitter in one cell that transmits to portable radios in the cell directly opposite. The broadcast includes historic radio shows created in prison and internment camps and highlights the role of radio in subverting and transcending prison walls.

We’re looking forward to unveiling these new pieces to our visitors on May 4, with a free evening reception to kick off our 2018 summer season. Visitors are welcome to attend the after-hours event and explore the penitentiary, view new installations, and even meet the artists.


MT: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site focuses on criminal justice issues and reform in the present day. Can you speak to why this is important to ESPHS, and how this is shared with visitors?

SK: We’ve been building programs and exhibits around contemporary issues in corrections for about five years. We’ve built the nation’s first museum exhibit about mass incarceration, and it won the highest award in exhibit design. We have begun to hire tour guides [who have] personal experience with incarceration, so they can speak from first-hand experience about the prison system.

We find that our visitors deeply engage with these new programs. Many people consider issues around criminal justice to the civil rights issue of our time. This is the perfect place to reflect on some of the most complex and troubling issues facing our nation.


MT: What events should Philadelphians attend at Eastern State, aside from Terror Behind the Walls?

SK: There are always new and returning events happening at Eastern State year-round. On the first Tuesday of every month, we host a free speaker series, The Searchlight Series, with monthly topics addressing issues of contemporary corrections. We encourage anyone with an interest in criminal justice to join us for the discussion.

Of course, this summer will see the iconic Eastern State event Philadelphians have come to know and love – Bastille Day. This year’s Bastille Day performance lands on the actual date of Bastille Day, July 14, so the audience can expect a celebration like never before, complete with flying Tastykakes and a real guillotine.

No matter where your interest lies, I hope we’ll see you in the cellblocks of Eastern State soon!


Our thanks to Sean Kelley for an eye-opening dialogue about Eastern State and all it has to offer Philadelphia.  We hope you’ll take his advice and visit America’s first true penitentiary soon. Let us know in the comments what you loved most about the site!

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