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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Terror Behind the Walls: Eastern State Penitentiary

Nickie Phillips


Guest Post by Gennifer Furst, William Paterson University The “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted Halloween-themed attraction at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is so scary because the building itself is frightening.  Its imposing Gothic-style archetecture is terrorfying on a regular day.  When it’s decorated for Halloween and the goal is to scare visitors – the place becomes downright creepy.

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) looks like it was dropped down into the middle of the city – actually it is located in what has become northwestern Philadelphia (on Fairmont Avenue at 20th Street) and the city grew around it. The facilty opened on October 23, 1829 and was designed to change inmates with solitary confinment.  The Pennsylvania System of confinement was conceived by Quakers who believed the approach was more civilized than the corporal punishment that was common at the time.  Under the Pennsylvania model, inmates remained isolated from each other and the world, providing them with time to reflect, or ask for penance, for their wrongs. The approach made Eastern State a penitentiary. In solitary cells inmates were limited to reading the Bible and engaging in small handicraft activities. The earliest prison programs came from penitentiaries and a need to teach inmates to read the Bible. Because of high rates of illiteracy, literacy programs were developed in order to facilitate inmates’ understanding of the religious materials that would lead to their reform. The approach used in Philadelphia was in competition with what was occurring in upstate New York, at Auburn State Prison.  Under the Auburn, or congregate system, inmates worked together in prison shops during the day but were not permitted to speak to each other.  They worked in silence, walked the prison halls in lockstep and returned to single cells to sleep at night.

The penitentiary has a wagon wheel design with seven original cellblocks radiating from the center rotonda like the spokes of a wheel. Additional cellblocks were built over the years when the prison ran out of room for inmates. Designed to hold 420 people, by 1926 ESP held 1,700.

When inmates entered the central rotunda of the prison a hood was placed over their heads and they were spun around so they would have no sense of direction. They were walked down the long corridor and placed inside a cell. Once inmates entered the facility, they would have no contact with any other inmates. On the rare occassions when they did leave their cells, inmates wore hoods so they would not see others. Cells had small slots where the inmates would receive their meals through the doors. Each cell had its own small exercise yard connected to the rear of the cell. Designed so inmates truly had minimal human contact, ESP was actually one of the first buildings in the United States to have indoor plumbling. At the time, the penitentiary cost nearly $800,000, making it one of the most expensive structures of its time.

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to investigate and then report their findings about how the young country of American delivered punishment. Tocqueville’s explorations of American society were published in his well-known work “Democracy in America”.  During their nine months of traveling they visited Sing Sing Prison in New York where the Auburn model was used and ESP.  Tocqueville described the model as both “the mildest and most terrible ever invented” (Damrosch, 2010, p.123).

A decade later, in 1842, Charles Dickens’ travels from England to North America were published in his “American Notes” (1842, 2004).  Describing his visit to ESP he concluded that the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body” (p. 111).  He wrote with great certainty that it would be “better to have hanged him at the beginning [of his sentence] than bring him to this pass” as any released man would return to society “unhealthy and diseased” (p. 121).  He left the prison convinced the silent system of New York was a more humane and less damaging alternative to what was happening at ESP.

The isolation model of ESP was ultimately beat out by the congregate Auburn system for a number of reasons. Complete isolation, as at Eastern State, required more space and more staff to oversee inmates spread out over a large facility. Increased space resulted in greater costs for building and maintaining the facilities. And with inmates only able to engage in small handicraft activities in their individual cells, the Auburn model was associated with a greater output of products for the state’s profit.

While the Auburn model won the battle against the Pennsylavania model, contemporary punishment does use the practices originated at ESP.  Commonly referred to as “the hole” – isolation is common inside carceral facilities today.  The solitary confinement conditions at ESP were also the origins of today’s super-max prisons where inmates live under 23-hour lockdown.

Several famous inmates have also helped keep ESP infamous.  Al Capone served eight months from 1929 to 1930, his first prison sentence.  He was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon.  His cell was significantly more comfortable than most with its Oriental rugs, Tiffany lamps, and even a radio.  Pep the dog was sentenced to life by Governor Gifford Pinchot on August 12, 1924.  According to some stories, Pep had killed the governor’s wife’s cat, while according to other accounts, the governor donated Pep, who was his dog, to the prison in order to increase morale inside the facility.

The building was abandoned in 1971 and allowed to deteroriate and fall into disrepair. The first Halloween-themed event occurred on October 31, 1991 as a fund raiser. Outisders have been allowed to tour the site since 1994. Visitors were required to wear hard hats until the structure of the overall prison was considered sufficiently stabilized in 2003 and sign liability waivers until 2008.

The spooky structure of ESP portrays a mental institution in “12 Monkeys” (1996) with Bruce Willis and a Southeast Asian prison in “Return to Paradise” (1998) with Vince Vaughn.  Music videos, including those by by Tina Turner (“One of the Living” in 1985) and The Dead Milkmen (“Punk Rock Girl” in 1988) were also filmed inside ESP.

“The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour, available since 2003, is narrated by Steve Buscemi who is widely recognized as portraying diabolical criminals in movies such as “The Usual Suspects” (1995).

If you choose to visit ESP for the “Terror Behind the Walls” be prepared to be more scared than ever before…

Go here to schedule your visit to "Terror Behind the Walls" at Eastern State Penitentiary

Dr. Gennifer Furst received her doctorate from CUNY Graduate Center/John Jay College.  She is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at William Paterson University of New Jersey where she is also the Director of the Criminal Justice Program.  Her research interests include incarceration, punishment policy, and drugs and crime. 


Damrosch, L. (2010). Tocqueville’s discovery of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Dickens, C. (1842/2004). American notes.  New York: Penguin Books.

Online 360 Tour of Eastern State


Inside Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State: Living Behind the Walls