The Historic Prison Which Imprisoned Willie Sutton & Al Capone

Bojan Ivanov

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is an old legendary prison located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America.

It was opened in 1829 and closed in 1971. This former prison is the most historic prison complex in the United States. Eastern State Penitentiary at the time when was erected was the largest and most expensive public structure in the States.

The exterior of the Eastern State Prison.

The exterior of the Eastern State Prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s 1836 floor plan.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s 1836 floor plan.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary’s radial plan served as the model for hundreds of later prisons. Author: Mike Graham from Portland, USA CC BY 2.0

Eastern State Penitentiary’s radial plan served as the model for hundreds of later prisons. Author: Mike Graham from Portland, USA CC BY 2.0

The prison complex had cell wings radiating in a circle from a central guard tower. This design with an octagonal center and main guard tower in the center became a model for more than 300 prisons all over the world.

The design of the prison and the new, so called “Pennsylvania system” or separate system, that was different from the Auburn system (where prisoners were forced to work together in silence and physical punishment was used) of imprisonment were novelty in the prison management.

One of the two story cell blocks in Eastern State Penitentiary. Author: HRae CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the two story cell blocks in Eastern State Penitentiary. Author: HRae CC BY-SA 3.0

The building had own central heating system and running water before the White House. Soon it became the most famous prison in the world. Because of its unique architecture it attracted visitors from around the world. Charles Dickens was one of them who were moved by the modernity and the astonishing details of this architectonic wonder. Later in Eastern State Penitentiary were imprisoned some of the world’s most notorious offenders of the 20 century.

Al Capone’s cell. Author: Thesab CC BY-SA 4.0

Al Capone’s cell. Author: Thesab CC BY-SA 4.0

The prison building was designed and constructed in Gothic style by the British architect John Haviland. He chose to make the exterior of the building in this style, because he wanted to place fear into those who had even slight thought of committing a crime. He found inspiration for his plan for the prison mostly from the asylums and prisons built in England and Ireland in in the 1780s.

The barber shop. Author: Centpacrr CC BY-SA 3.0

The barber shop. Author: Centpacrr CC BY-SA 3.0

The prison was originally planned not just to punish, but to provoke the criminal to go in the direction of God. The interior of the prison was designed to awaken deep remorse in the heart of the inmates. They were kept in strict solitary captivity, in small cells with small doors. The doors were designed in that way, because the prisoners had to bow before entering the cell. The metal doors were covered with wood to filter the noise. The cells were made of solid concrete walls with one glass skylight, that symbolized “Eye of God”. This detail had to show that God was always watching them.

Pictures of people killed by people incarcerated here. Author: Ryanthemok CC BY-SA 4.0

Pictures of people killed by people incarcerated here. Author: Ryanthemok CC BY-SA 4.0

Outside the cell the inmates had separate area for exercise. This place was surround with high walls so they couldn’t interact. Their exercise hour was synchronized so no two inmates next to each other would be out at the same time. Inmates could have own garden and even a pet in their exercise yards. When the inmate left his cell, his head was covered to prevent him from being recognized by other inmates. The architect of this building wanted to make real church atmosphere in the prison, so the sinners could be alone with their thoughts and regret for their crimes.

But, the original idea of the plan of the prison was quickly abandoned, mainly because of overcrowding, and the prison became a standard prison, where physical punishment was routine. At the beginning there were jailed “average” criminals, like pickpockets, purse-snatchers and burglars, but later there were housed famous criminals like “Slick Willie” Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone. Willie Sutton, with twelve inmates, made the great escape from the prison by digging a 97-foot tunnel under the prison walls.

Gargoyle on the exterior of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Author: Dorevabelfiore CC BY-SA 4.0

Gargoyle on the exterior of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Author: Dorevabelfiore CC BY-SA 4.0

The prison closed in 1971. For some years it was overgrown with vegetation and was home of stray cats. But from 1994 it opened for the public for guided tours and it was preserved from decaying. It attracts 220,000 visitors each year.