The Fraught and Frightful History of Eastern State Penitentiary

Photo Courtesy: Juha Metsranta/Getty Images

Although it exists today merely as haunting ruins, long-abandoned guard towers and decrepit cellblocks that carry whispers of past cruelties, Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) was once one of the United States’ most preeminent prisons, an institution that represented a supposedly innovative new level of rehabilitation for incarcerated people when it first opened in 1829. During the nearly 150 years the facility was in operation, it developed a reputation for housing some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history — including gangster and racketeer Al Capone — but it also influenced the global approach to imprisonment in lasting ways that are still highly visible today. ESP was the first prison of its kind to enforce solitary confinement, a practice that’s now widely recognized as a form of psychological torture.

But how did this come to pass — how did ESP leave such a fraught legacy? Examining the history of this famous prison, from its origins to its design, tells a story rife with controversy that extends to the practices of the facility themselves.