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ESP Unveils New Artist Installations and Newly Restored Al Capone’s Cell

Historic site kicks off its 2019 season with three new artist installations and updated Capone exhibit

April 2, 2019

Philadelphia, PA (April 2, 2019) – Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site announces new and updated programming for its 2019 season, kicking off Thursday, May 2, 2019. The historic site welcomes three new site-specific artist installations and unveils a newly restored Al Capone’s Cell exhibit.

Al Capone’s Cell Reopens May 2, 2019
The historic site debuts a newly restored Al Capone’s Cell exhibit on May 2. Recent conservation efforts return one cell to how it likely appeared in the late 1920s when Capone was incarcerated at Eastern State. A second cell interprets the history of artistry that was uncovered during the conservation process.

Initial preservation efforts started in January 2019. Conservators began work with the ultimate goal of replastering the walls of the cell used for the exhibit so that the quality of the architectural finishes would match that of the furniture. The scope of the project changed, however, when this process revealed unexpected evidence of decorative paint schemes present in the penitentiary during its time as an active prison.

After removing the top layer of plaster from the walls, conservators uncovered more than 20 layers of paint, including evidence of many decorative and colorful paint schemes over time. Ultimately, the historic site’s team of conservators and interpreters felt that the rich history of artistry uncovered in this cell was too important to cover up.

For the first time, the Al Capone’s Cell exhibit includes not one but two cells—one cell recreates Capone’s cell to how it likely appeared during his incarceration at Eastern State, while the other leaves the evidence of these paint schemes exposed.

The walls of the new cell containing the recreation were patched and then lime-washed in a period-appropriate color scheme. The period-appropriate furniture was removed from the cell, cleaned, treated, and then returned to the new cell.

Alphonse “Scarface” Capone got his first taste of prison life in Philadelphia when he served time at Eastern State Penitentiary in 1929 and 1930 for carrying a concealed, unlicensed revolver. His recreated cell gives visitors a glimpse at his time in the penitentiary.

New Artwork Debuts May 2, 2019
Visitors to the historic site can view three new artist installations beginning May 2. The installations were chosen for their ability to address Eastern State’s primary themes—including perspectives on the contemporary American criminal justice system and the penitentiary’s fascinating past—with a memorable, thought-provoking approach.

Eastern State has commissioned site-specific artist installations since 1995. To date, more than 100 artists have created work for the penitentiary.

Benjamin Wills: Airplanes
Artist Benjamin Wills’ ongoing correspondence with incarcerated people took a meaningful turn when he first asked one of these individuals to send him a paper airplane. Soon he had dozens of airplanes from prisoners around the country. Individually, the airplanes – made from varying materials including commissary lists, drawing paper, and denied appeals – each convey the emotions and expression of their creators. Together, they encourage reflection on a complex and troubling time in American criminal justice. Visitors to the historic site will be encouraged to write notes to the people who crafted the paper airplanes.

Alexander Rosenberg: A Climber’s Guide to Eastern State Penitentiary or, Eastern State’s Architecture, and How to Escape It
Artist Alexander Rosenberg brings Eastern State’s history of preservation into conversation with the curiously overlapping story of American climbing. In 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary closed; at the same time, the concept of “clean climbing” was gaining traction in the worldwide climbing community. Drawing inspiration from these intersecting narratives, the artist will rock-climb a dozen or more possible routes on the inside of Eastern State’s 30-foot walls using “clean climbing” techniques. He will then map and name each climb, producing a guidebook. The artist will also fabricate a rack of traditional climbing gear from materials that would have been available within the penitentiary at its closing.

Dehanza Rogers: #BlackGirlhood Filmmaker Dehanza Rogers’ video projection, commissioned by Eastern State Penitentiary, explores the criminalization of Black girlhood. Viewers will observe the struggles of three Black girls as they navigate authority and policing in the classroom. The filmmaker says her work illustrates, in part, the school to prison pipeline and the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

All artist installations and exhibits, including Al Capone’s Cell, are included with standard admission. Regular daytime programs, including “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, guided Hands-On History tours, and history exhibits, are also included with admission. Tickets are available online at, or at the door subject to availability.

Season Opening Reception – May 2, 2019
To celebrate the 2019 season, Eastern State Penitentiary will host an opening reception on Thursday, May 2 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments served.

About Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the nation’s founding through to the present day, within the long-abandoned cellblocks of the nation’s most historic prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells held approximately 80,000 men and women during its 142 years of operation, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is open for tours seven days a week, year-round. Admission includes “The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi; Hands-On History interactive experiences; history exhibits; and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations.

In recent years, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has been awarded the prestigious Excellence in Exhibitions award by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the nation’s highest award in exhibition development and design, for its exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as well as the Institutional Award for Special Achievement from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and the Trustee Emeritus Award for Stewardship from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Returning Citizens Tour Guide Project, which hires people who were formerly incarcerated to lead tours of the historic site, has won the EdCom Award for Innovation in Museum Education by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and has been featured internationally by such networks as the BBC and others.

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Artist installations are made possible in part by revenue from Eastern State’s Halloween fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls.

Eastern State also receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner