Eastern State Penitentiary reopens with refreshed tour

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The warm weather is bringing in plenty of sunshine and re-openings as the City of Philadelphia begins to heal. 

The Friday, March 12, the Eastern State Penitentiary will reopen after its extended closure last November. With the reopening also comes a refreshed way to experience the historic site as admission will include expanded offerings such as the prison synagogue highlighting the accompanying exhibit on Jewish life, and Cellblock 11, which houses several site-specific artist installations. The tours will be operating on a new schedule as well, as the historic site will be offering them Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


“We are thrilled to welcome visitors and members back to the penitentiary for meaningful and, most importantly, safe experiences on site,” said President and CEO Sally Elk in a statement. “We hope that Eastern State’s engaging programming and awe-inspiring architecture will provide the much-needed space to escape, and also to reflect on important issues.”

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According to the release, visitors will tour the historic site using a modified version of “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, the organization’s signature program. The audio tour, which is narrated by actor Steve Buscemi and features the voices of former prisoners and correctional staff, will guide visitors through the penitentiary complex, including popular points of interest such as Al Capone’s cell, death row, and the award-winning exhibit, “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

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When the Penitentiary closed in early March 2020 temporarily, viewership for this particular showcase, which was also being shown digitally, increased significantly, prompting the ESP to add more content, including twice-weekly videos (every Tuesday and Friday). With Prisons and the Pandemic, Eastern State Penitentiary Tour Guide Marney Penn shared the latest news about COVID-19 and its effect on the criminal justice system to give viewers an inside look at how the crisis is impacting those incarcerated. Then, with the ESP’s popular offering ‘The Searchlight Series,’ viewers were able to join in on a live-streamed conversation focusing on timely topics like the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated youth. Now, however, viewers can experience everything first-hand and in person once again. 

“It’s wonderful not just to welcome the public back into the building, but to open up spaces that visitors haven’t seen in a full year,” said Senior Vice President Sean Kelley in a statement. “I’m especially excited to reopen our synagogue in time for Passover. We believe it’s the first synagogue built in an American prison, and many of our visitors—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—find it a deeply moving space.”

Continued safety measures will be in place for the site’s March reopening—staff and visitors ages two and older will be required to wear masks, and visitors must keep six feet of distance from others at all times. Hand sanitizer will also be available throughout the site, and visitors will be asked to sanitize their hands upon entry. Additional security measures include plexiglass shields that will separate visitors from staff at points of contact. Cleaning, particularly of high-touch surfaces, will be also be increased.

Timed tickets must be purchased online, and more information is available at EasternState.org


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