A Night at the Penitentiary

A Night at the PenitentiaryYou can join thousands of inmates, both male and female, to experience what nighttime was like in a real penitentiary during the annual Halloween TERROR BEHIND THE WALLS. Not quite brave enough? Take a self-guided daytime tour. More details: Website Link

Staying in a prison sounds better than a penitentiary. You aren’t in solitary all the time and can see and speak to guards or other inmates without donning a black hood. That was part of the standard protocol at Eastern State even for minor crimes.

The prison, now a historic landmark and museum, is located in the Fairmount District of Philadelphia about a ten-minute walk east of the Philly Museum of Art, atop the well-known Rocky steps.


When the penitentiary was built in 1829, it led the pack in prison design and is still the model for over 300 prisons worldwide. I’d describe it as an octopus – a round nucleus with long arms, or hallways, lined with cells on either side.

Eastern State, originally the State Correctional Institution of Philadelphia, shut their doors after 142 years of operation in 1971. Any remaining inmates were transferred to another prison. A famous longer-term visitor included Al Capone. A daring prison escape occurred during WWII through a 100-foot tunnel. Later, officials discovered 30 incomplete tunnels.


Nowadays the neighborhood is filled with historic townhomes, trendy shops, and eateries with a kids playground on the NW corner. We discovered the neighborhood during a trip from NYC for the Halloween event. I suppose this means we don’t scare easy!

The penitentiary deteriorated in the thirty years it stood empty during the city’s lengthy debate over what to do with it. A cat colony took over perhaps in revenge against Pep, dog inmate #C2559, condemned by the governor for murdering a cat. An interior forest reclaimed some of the open-air courtyards and cells. While it’s safe to tour today, it’s far from move-in ready, but the decadence adds to the allure.

If you’d prefer to have a drink and watch the smoke-breathing watchdog gargoyles, Frank and Carson, who are only on hand for Halloween, stop off across the street at Jack’s Firehouse. And behind the prison on the NE corner is a little library for card-free borrowing including some in the horror genre.

The Fairmount District borders my neighborhood, Spring Garden. Both areas have streets full of old townhouses, churches, and charm. Even my house looks a little haunted late at night with a black tabby roaming around inside.

At night, the penitentiary is one of the scariest places in America, if not the world. Pretty close to your worst nightmare but in a good way. Hell, it’s Halloween! If you are a Stephen King fan, you can handle it. Be ready to give some penitence, or you may regret it. But hurry – the special Halloween event ends this year on the 10th of November.

My novel, AQUAVIT, doesn’t take place at the penitentiary or in Philly, but it includes a scene at the infamous Halloween parade in NYC.

Karen Stensgaard is the author of the novel AQUAVIT, the first book in the Aquamarine Sea Series with a second novel on the way soon. AQUAVIT is available as a paperback from Amazon and Ingram Spark or as an e-book from almost everyone else. Libraries have free access via Overdrive.  Link to free chapters on Amazon


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