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Lesson Plan 1

This lesson is one of two in a series bringing relevant stories of the penitentiary into the classroom.

The lesson could be used in American History, Criminal Justice, General Mathematic Courses, Psychology, Sociology, and Statistical Methods courses. It provides an interesting contrast to typical textbook coverage, which tends to cover the increase in population and shifts in demographics during the 1800s but pays little attention to their effects on the justice and prison system.

Topics to visit/expand upon:
Social Studies, Criminal Justice, Government and Politics, Sociology, Psychology, and General Mathematics.

Time Period:

If one were to take a walking tour of the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it would not take long to find the one building that simply does not fit into its surroundings. The architecture and design only add to the mystery and intrigue provided by Eastern State Penitentiary. From the outside, Eastern State very closely resembles a 17th century European castle. Its dauntingly high stone walls topped by turrets were meant to instill fear and intimidate all who approach it. Once inside the penitentiary, the level of anxiety and uncertainty for inmates and visitors continues through its maze of cellblocks.

Considered a revolution in prison reform when it opened in 1829, Eastern State became the home to the “Pennsylvania,” or the “Separate System” of prison philosophy. Prisoners were kept separated from one another, and all outside contacts, during their stay. The intention was that they would reflect upon the decisions that resulted in their sentencing and would eventually be reformed and returned to society. Between 1829 and 1900, America saw many changes within its society, which are clearly reflected in the changes at Eastern State Penitentiary through those same years.

This historic lesson is based on the Eastern State Penitentiary located in the Fairmount section of the city of Philadelphia. This lesson is one of two in a series of lesson plans bringing relevant stories of the penitentiary into the classroom. This lesson plan focuses on the creation of Eastern State Penitentiary and its response to societal changes between 1829 and 1901. Sources used for this lesson plan include maps/photographs accessed directly on Eastern State Penitentiary’s website and primary sources such as the 1831 Register of Pennsylvania and the 72nd Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Penitentiary. Eastern State Penitentiary is on the National Register of Historic Places under file name and registration number: Eastern State Penitentiary #66000680. This lesson plan was designed by Jim Dunn (Oakcrest High School).

  • Students will explore the physical design of Eastern State Penitentiary and how the design changed throughout the years.
  • Students will give reasons as to why Eastern State Penitentiary deviated from the Pennsylvania system in the 1870s.
  • Students will develop an understanding of the external factors that caused changes within the penitentiary.
  • Students will analyze the crimes of people incarcerated at Eastern State and determine how those crimes represent or reflect the society outside of Eastern State Penitentiary.

This lesson plan’s activities can be used to address many of the Common Core Standards for Grades 6-12:

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening
Relevant U.S. History Standards Grades 5-12

Era 4 - Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
Standard 2B - The student understands the first era of American urbanization.
Standard 2C - The student understands how antebellum immigration changed American society.
Standard 4B - The student understands how Americans strived to reform society and create a distinct culture.

Era 6 - The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
Standard 1B - The student understands the rapid growth of cities and how urban life changed.
Standard 2A - The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.
Standard 2B - The student understands "scientific racism" race relations, and the struggle for equal rights.
Standard 2C - The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.
Standard 3C - The student understands how Americans grappled with social, economic, and political issues.

Relevant Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
Strand I - Culture
Strand II - Time, Continuity, and Change
Strand III - People, Places, and Environments
Strand VI - Power, Authority, and Governance
Strand X - Civic Ideals and Practices

The materials listed below can either be used directly on the computer or can be printed out for student use.

  • Lesson Plan 1, which includes:
    • Two maps of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia
    • Two readings and three documents about the history of Eastern State Penitentiary, prison reform and reports from the inspectors of Eastern State Penitentiary
    • Five photographs/drawings of Eastern State Penitentiary and cells 

A field trip to Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is an experience that allows your students to learn history and become engaged in historic inquiry. Through an interactive tour, students will use Eastern State Penitentiary’s 142-year history as a lens to examine the larger story of American History.

Class tours are tailored to the grade level or college year of your group.  When you are booking your tour, please let us know what your students are currently studying, their education level, and if you have specific interests, such as religious influence, architecture, criminal justice or escapes. Although private group tours are available throughout the year at Eastern State Penitentiary, cold weather can make winter and early spring tours a very chilling experience.  We recommend group tours between April 1 and November 30.

Recommended for students 10 years of age and older.  Tours are not recommended for children under the age of seven (7).  Led by a member of our guide staff.  Limited to groups of 15 to 125.  1 hour.

For more information, visit Eastern State Penitentiary’s group tour page.

Further resources on Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison system, and relevant 19th century history can be found in the following locations:

Online Research

Video Clips


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner