From the Archives: Philly Prison Culture


This blog post is part of an ongoing series in collaboration with Archives Month Philly, a city-wide festival each October celebrating historical records, archives, and rare books. Learn more and check out their events calendar at

Guest blogger: Annie Anderson, Manager, Research and Public Programming, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

A visitor to Monument Lab recently recommended “an abstract monument calling attention to the history of prison culture in Philly” at the site of the former Walnut Street Prison. The visitor, named Sarah, suggested that the monument might raise awareness of the internment of a group of Conestoga Indians, who—though not held at the Walnut Street Prison—were detained in protective custody in the Lancaster, PA workhouse in 1763 and massacred by a vigilante group.

Only a historic marker denotes where Walnut Street Prison once stood, at the southeast corner of 6th and Walnut Streets. Its storied past—as a home to debtors, untried prisoners, Revolutionary War captives, and men and women of all ages convicted of felonies and misdemeanors—remains hidden, known to prison scholars and historians but few others.

2013.010.067. Postcard of Walnut Street Jail, postmarked 1912. Photo: collection of  Eastern State Penitentiary .

2013.010.067. Postcard of Walnut Street Jail, postmarked 1912. Photo: collection of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Such is the story of Philly prison culture. A cluster of jails on an industrial strip of land in far northeast Philadelphia holds more than 6,000 people—80% of whom are pre-trial inmates. The confinement of men and women in our nation’s prisons and jails remains largely out of sight and out of mind for many Americans. Even Eastern State Penitentiary, though now located in the midst of the bustling Fairmount neighborhood, was built on a cherry orchard in the 1820s, on pastoral land removed from the city center of Philadelphia.

Occasionally, as with the Federal Detention Center at 7th and Arch Streets, prisons are draped in drab greys and erected as part of a high-rise urban landscape.

More often than not, though, prisons are located in rural areas—away from densely populated communities that may want tougher law enforcement but do not want prisons built near them.

Philadelphia, city of firsts, pioneered solitary confinement and the concept of penitence—a prison philosophy that, its advocates hoped, could rescue people from a life of crime. Once the world’s most radical leader in the reconstruction of penal practices and prison spaces, Philadelphia now has the highest rate of incarceration of any large jurisdiction in the country.

"Historic Marker" by Jeff Fusco, 2010. Source:  Eastern State Penitentiary image library , Image Code: BT28

"Historic Marker" by Jeff Fusco, 2010. Source: Eastern State Penitentiary image library, Image Code: BT28

More public monuments to Philly’s prison history and culture—such as the one suggested by the visitor to Monument Lab—could change a visitor or resident’s perspective on the city. Perhaps it might also orient us to pay attention to prison culture today—a historic moment in which the U.S. continues to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with no historic precedent or international counterpart.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site explores the history, present, and future of prisons with visitors everyday. Our interpretation lets the building’s stunning architecture and myriad stories guide the visitor experience. Eastern State might actually be the closest thing to a monument to Philly prison culture that exists in the city today.

Archives to explore: