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Lesson Plan 2

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

This lesson can be used in (though not limited to) Social Studies, American History, Criminal Justice, Sociology, Psychology, General Mathematics, and U.S. Government and Politics. This lesson plan will allow students to understand the impact of the Progressive Movement in greater detail.  Time Period: 1890s-1930  Topics to visit/expand upon: Social Studies, Criminal Justice, Government and Politics, Sociology, Psychology, and General Mathematics.

Rising high over the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eastern State Penitentiary’s imposing gothic façade continues to intimidate anyone who passes. When the penitentiary opened in 1829, the outside walls were designed to create fear in those who viewed it, while the inside was meant to reform and inspire penitence, or true regret, in the people housed there. Through a system of separate confinement with labor, incarcerated people would learn a trade and spend their time alone, in silence, only interacting with a moral instructor and other prison administrators. The world watched as this great experiment was carried out, waiting to see if this method would “cure” crime.

As the years passed, the events outside the high walls of Eastern State affected the penitentiary. This was a time in American history when great changes were taking place. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, creating the need for cheap labor, which attracted millions of immigrants seeking the American Dream of prosperity through hard work. With the rise in population came a rise in crime. More and more people were sent to Eastern State. However, there were not enough cells to keep the prisoners separate. The separate system faced strong criticism, and by 1913, Eastern State abandoned the system that had made it famous. The penitentiary turned instead to the congregate system, housing prisoners together— similar to the system used in prisons today.

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 classrooms. This lesson plan focuses on the Progressive Era (1890s through 1930), and its impact on the changing thoughts of penology in the American society. Sources used for this lesson plan are maps and photographs located directly on Eastern State Penitentiary’s website and primary sources such as newspaper articles of the time. 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 Jade Tuff (Academy at Palumbo) and Mark Hoey (Philadelphia High School for Girls) both located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

  • Students will explore the physical design of Eastern State Penitentiary and how it changed through the years.
  • Using specific examples fro the readings, students will examine how the justice system helped/failed society during the Progressive Era.
  • Students will explain how the Progressive Era influenced our current prison system.

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

Era 7 - The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930) 
Standard 1 - How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption
Standard 2 - The changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I
Standard 3 - How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression  

Relevant Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
Strand I - Culture
Strand II - Time, Continuity, and Change
Strand III - People, Places, and Environments
Strand V - Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
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.


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.

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner