Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark constructed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, received its first inmate in 1829. Designed by architect John Haviland, this massive structure epitomizes the Pennsylvania System of imprisonment, a system founded on the concept of rehabilitating criminals through reflection, separate confinement, and education in a trade. Approximately 300 prisons worldwide were based on HavilandB9s unique design. However, the Pennsylvania System was abandoned in 1913 and Eastern State operated as a congregate prison for 57 more years. In 1970, the Commonwealth sold the penitentiary to the City of Philadelphia, its current owner. After using it for a year, the City abandoned the site with no concrete plans for its reuse. In the 1980s, the City's administration heeded the public's plea for preservation and access, spearheaded by the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force. The Task Force began tours in 1994 and in 1998 became Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. (an independent nonprofit organization), which leases the building from the City.
Archival materials at ESPHS total approximately 50 linear feet of materials documenting Eastern State Penitentiary specifically and the Pennsylvania System of imprisonment in general. Collections include fragmentary penitentiary records relating to the operations and administration of the prison as a whole, the physical structures and objects within the walls of the penitentiary during its years of operation, and the administrators, staff and inmates who lived and worked within the building. Also included are inmate-produced newsletters, photographs, case files, and oral histories.