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Living at Eastern State Penitentiary

This lesson is designed to connect Gennifer Choldenko's book Al Capone Does My Shirts to Eastern State's history.

Social Studies/History, Language Arts

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko is an engaging way to connect students to the history of Alcatraz Penitentiary, but also to Eastern State Penitentiary. Alcatraz was an island on which guards and their families lived, while Eastern State Penitentiary (in the 20th century) was surrounded by the city of Philadelphia, separated not by water, but by 30-foot high walls. The children and grandchildren of wardens and deputy wardens lived in the front administration building for most of its history, but by the time Al Capone served his prison sentence at Eastern State, the families had moved out.  Many children, however, lived just outside of the prison walls and had similar life experiences to those of the children on Alcatraz Island, as described in Choldenko’s book. This lesson plan will allow students to compare and contrast the history of the two penitentiaries as well as to imagine what life would have been like for the children who lived just beyond the prisons’ walls. 

People incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary were not as isolated from the rest of the world as you might think.  Although thick stone walls separated them from the outside, prisoners were reminded of the life they were missing; they could still hear the children from the local elementary school playing outside, ice cream trucks driving by, and Christmas music drifting out from nearby houses. The children living outside the walls had even more interaction with the prison than you might expect. On weekends, children would wait at the wall that enclosed the inmates’ baseball field. They hoped for baseballs to come over the wall so they could get a prison ball of their own. The guards in the towers talked to the kids, and sometimes asked for the balls back, and other times let the kids keep them. Some prison guards would bring their sons into Eastern State to get haircuts from inmates.  Just like Alcatraz in Al Capone Does My Shirts, Eastern State Penitentiary was much more than just a place to hold people convicted of crimes.

  • Students will learn more of the history of Eastern State Penitentiary, and the people who lived in and around it.
  • Students will compare and contrast how Eastern State Penitentiary and Alcatraz were built, and how each was made to be “escape-proof.”
  • Students will read eyewitness accounts of life in and around Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • Students will compare and contrast the lives of the fictional characters on Alcatraz Island in Al Capone Does My Shirts, with the lives of prisoners and guards of Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the community outside the walls.
  • Students will imagine what it would be like to live in the neighborhood, or to have a guard as a father.  Each student will write a first-person narrative or description of life at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Anchor Standards for Reading
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Anchor Standards for Writing
3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. 

Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Al Capone Does my Shirts, written by Gennifer Choldenko

Living at Eastern State Penitentiary Lesson Plan, which includes:

  • Images of Alcatraz and Eastern State 
  • Historic maps of Philadelphia, showing how the city grew around Eastern State Penitentiary
  • Oral histories of people who grew up in and around Eastern State Penitentiary
  • Historic Images
  • Photo Analysis Worksheet

Post-Visit Al Capone Activity 

This lesson plan is designed for flexibility.  Teachers are encouraged to select those sections that are appropriate to their students’ level and fit best into their curriculum.

  • Have students discuss and brainstorm reasons for laws and prisons.
  • Have students read Al Capone Does My Shirts.
  • Students will discuss what they read, including the brief history at the end of the book.
  • Students will (if possible) visit Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.
  • Students will return to the classroom and will read transcripts of the oral histories of people who grew up in and around Eastern State.
  • Students will compare and contrast the lives of the fictional characters of the book and the real lives of those at Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • Students will learn that Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, has some similarities to Alcatraz, and will discuss why each was built where it was.

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.

Online Research

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner