Eastern State Penitentiary
Visitors explore the underground punishment cells on a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary. (Jeff Fusco - Eastern State Penitentiary)

You don't have to commit a crime to see the inside of a prison cell.

The Eastern State Penitentiary, a Philadelphia prison that once housed famed gangster Al Capone, can now be visited as a National Historic Site.

The penitentiary was functional for 142 years until it closed in 1971. It re-opened in 1994 and is open for visitors year-round.

Although the facility is no longer active, that doesn't deter guests from visiting, said Sean Kelley, public programming director for the penitentiary. In 2012, the facility welcomed more than 250,000 visitors.

"The building today is a ruins, but visitors like to come and explore," he said.

New elements: For the 2013 season, the penitentiary has introduced new exhibits and added stops on its guide-led Hands-On History program, according to Kelley. The new additions allow visitors to see "Soup Alley," a long hallway that once connected the prison's dining halls, and the tunnel where 12 inmates tried to escape in 1945. Other stops include opening of the front gate, unlocking a cell, learning to play bocce ball and exploring the underground punishment cells.

Kelley said the prison is kid-friendly for those 7 and older. The penitentiary provides a kid's guide that includes a scavenger hunt to keep them engaged. There is adult-only content on the tour, but those parts are clearly marked, he said. He suggests at least an hour and a half to explore the facility.

For visitors who choose to go at their own pace, "The Voices of Eastern State" audio tour guides them through the complex and explains the prison's history. It includes a main route and offers additional stops for those interested in learning more about escapes, riots, sports and the issue of sexuality.

Al Capone: Kelley said many visitors come to see the facility's most popular exhibits, which include death row and Al Capone's cell. Capone was an inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary from 1929 to 1930.

"We restored the cell to look like it was when he was here," Kelley said.

In addition to the cell, the prison houses a restored synagogue.

Eastern State Penitentiary cell block
A man strolls through the empty corridors of cell block seven at Eastern State Penitentiary. (John Van Horn - easternstate.org)

"People are always surprised to find the synagogue in a prison," Kelley said. "It's still rare."

He estimates only a handful of prisons have one. "It's been restored to original appearance. It's gorgeous."

Upcoming events: The facility will house a pop-up museum for 10 days beginning March 23 and running through April 1. The temporary exhibit will feature historic photographs of inmates' and officers' daily lives, a 1903 mug shot book, inmate-carved models and homemade weapons, all dating back to Eastern State's time as an active prison. The pop-up event is included in the regular admission price.

"We don't have a space like a museum, so for 10 days we are putting up our most rare and fascinating objects," Kelley said, adding that the museum will feature paperwork including a presidential pardon from Franklin Pierce.

Kelley said the penitentiary plans to build a climate-controlled exhibit space in the future, but until then can only display artifacts for short periods of time to keep them preserved.

The penitentiary will also host a "Searchlight Series" every week in April with expert-led discussions about prisons today, including talk of drugs, race and prison reform.

Kelley said most visitors find the penitentiary fascinating no matter what they're interested in. He believes the ruins of the prison are by far the biggest draw.

"It's eerie because it's all collapsing on itself, but it's beautiful," he said.

Get tickets

Tickets to the penitentiary, located at 2027 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia, are available online or at the door. The cost is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students and kids.

For more information, visit www.easternstate.org.