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What Happened Inside This Pennsylvania Penitentiary Is Beyond Terrifying… And It Changed Prisons Forever

Solitary confinement is a controversial practice in American prisons today, but before Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was built in the mid-1800s, solitary confinement did not even exist as a concept. With the completion of the prison, the American prison system adopted a new precedent of incarceration that involved tiny cells and prolonged isolation. Yet, the extent of what happened there is even worse than just that.

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Eastern State Penitentiary, with its wagon-wheel floorpan and small, individual cells, was the first true penitentiary ever built. The Quaker-designed structure was designed to encourage prisoners to be “penitent.” Soon after its opening, Eastern State Penitentiary became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.

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Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842 with only two locations he really wanted to visit: Niagara Falls and Eastern State Penitentiary. After touring the prison and attempting to speak with some of the inmates (who appeared to be brain dead) he wrote that solitary confinement is a “torturing of the mind that is much worse that any physical punishment that can be administered.”

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Prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary didn’t only face the isolation that drives men mad. They also faced abuse from guards that included lashings with a leather strap, being left for days strapped to a chair, being kept in small, unventilated cells, and even being buried in pits beneath the cells for weeks at a time, with only their heads left above ground.

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This is what a typical cell would look like in the heyday of the prison. The small door forced prisoners to bow when entering or exiting the cell, encouraging a penitent attitude.

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Al Capone was one of many famous (or infamous) inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary. His cell, which he resided in for nine months after being arrested for tax evasion, is carefully preserved today for visitors. He was given special decorating privileges, as you can tell. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been envious of a prison cell’s interior decorating before.)

Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971 and today is known as one of the most haunted places in the country. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places and is open seven days a week, 12 months a year, for public tours… only you must agree to wear a hard hat if you enter, because the building is in such a state of disrepair.

Have you ever visited the Eastern State Penitentiary? Would you? Share your stories, thoughts, and comments below.

Christi
Christi is from Allentown and currently lives and goes to school in Pittsburgh.