Centuries ago, it was an international model for how to incarcerate criminals.
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which opened its doors in 1829, emphasized reform rather than punishment and would serve as a model for penitentiaries worldwide.
“Prisons are designed to punish, to keep people afraid, to deter,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of Interpretation and Public Programming at Eastern State. “This prison changed everything though. The people who built this prison said 'why not rehabilitate, why not inspire penance?' So they built this building calling it a penitentiary."
The prison at that time was state-of-the-art, revolutionary and the most expensive in the world.
In operation from 1829 to 1971, thousands passed through the large gates in the 142 years it was in operation. The prisoners included some notorious criminals like Al Capone and bank robber William "Slick Willie" Sutton. Sutton, in fact, was part of a 1945 jailbreak. He and 11 other prisoners built a tunnel they thought would carry them to freedom. Instead, within months after the well-planned escape, all 12 inmates who broke out were caught and returned. Slick Willie was captured just 3 minutes after breaking free.
Now, the storied facility stands in ruin. Cell blocks, once the only walls the prisoners would see for most of their days incarcerated, are now crumbling and reduced to dusty piles. The walls, once kept pristine by inmates, are now peeling plaster.
Kelley said some guards and prisoners are shocked when they return to the place where they once spent so much time.
"When the old timers come back and the former prisoners come back, they say it is kind of heartbreaking because the building they remember was meticulously cared for, every little square inch every day," recalled Kelley.
Eastern State Penitentiary operated from right after the American Revolution until the Vietnam War. With generation after generation passing through, and over 1,000 people dying inside the prison walls, some violently, many believe it’s haunted. The Travel Channel called it “one of the most haunted locations in the world.”
"I don't even believe in ghosts but I do believe if there were ghosts anywhere,” said Kelley, a self-described skeptic of the supernatural, “they would be in here.”