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ESPHS Awarded $1M Mellon Foundation Grant to Support Next Phase of Institution’s Growth

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Awarded $1,001,000 Mellon Foundation Grant to Support Next Phase of Institution’s Growth

March 25, 2024

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) has been awarded a grant by the Mellon Foundation in the amount of $1,001,000 to support the Philadelphia historic site in its next phase of growth and impact. This generous contribution will significantly enhance the institution's ability to educate the public about the complexities of the criminal justice system, provide a more powerful museum experience, and empower formerly incarcerated individuals.

While Eastern State is an essential thread in Philadelphia’s historical and cultural fabric, it also speaks to national and international audiences about critical, modern justice issues. When the facility opened as an active prison in 1829, it changed how the world viewed criminal justice reform. Nearly 200 years later, no other museum in the United States has ESPHS’s specific focus, asking visitors across the globe to consider whether our justice system is, in fact, just. Under the leadership of new President & CEO Dr. Kerry Sautner, and with the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, ESPHS is ready to launch the institution into its next phase of growth and onto a national stage.

The Mellon Foundation grant will support three key initiatives:

  • National Education Leadership: ESPHS will establish itself as a national leader in criminal justice education, speaking to the evolution of the prison system, including how and why it has changed over time. Personal stories from those most deeply affected by the system can illuminate necessary reforms and help chart a path towards greater human dignity. Eastern State will convene national dialogues to foster a greater understanding of the American prison system, bringing leading organizations and experts together to discuss critical issues in justice education and reform.
  • Workforce Development Programs: The grant will fund the expansion of existing programs designed to equip formerly incarcerated individuals with the skills and support necessary to thrive. Funding will provide crucial job training, educational resources, and support services to a greater number of individuals, empowering them to build brighter futures and achieve economic self-sufficiency. ESPHS will serve as a replicable model for innovative workforce development programming and social impact.
  • Reimagined Museum Experience: ESPHS will utilize the grant to develop new educational tools and storytelling techniques to enhance visitors’ understanding of the prison's complex history and its ongoing relevance to contemporary social issues. By fostering a diverse and engaged workforce, ESPHS will also create a more inclusive and meaningful experience for visitors, offering richer perspectives and a deeper understanding of the stories told at the historic site.

One focus of funding will be Eastern State’s workforce development programs, which empower returning citizens—people returning home to their communities following incarceration—to use their voice and agency in public institutions and fuel the historic site’s work in reshaping public perceptions of formerly incarcerated people. ESPHS has developed two programs – the Preservation Trades Center (PTC) and Lived Experience Activating Dialogue (LEAD) Fellowship – to support people from communities that have historically been underrepresented in the skilled trades and the arts and humanities sectors, respectively. Generous funding from the Mellon Foundation will support the operation and growth of both programs. It will enable ESPHS to build organizational infrastructure, expand program capacity, and enhance impact—providing fresh starts to as many people as possible and creating replicable models for other organizations across the country.

"We are incredibly grateful to the Mellon Foundation for this transformative $1 million grant, which will allow Eastern State Penitentiary to grow into its next phase," said John McInerney, Chair of the Board of Directors of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. "This funding is a true game-changer, enabling us to offer more opportunities for individuals facing barriers to employment and strengthening the community we serve."

“We are deeply committed to leveraging this generous grant to its fullest potential,” said Dr. Kerry Sautner, President & CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. “It will enable us to shape our vision for the next phase of Eastern State’s evolution: not only engaging the nation in critical issues of justice reform, but also ensuring that formerly incarcerated people have a voice, a stake, and a fresh start in our institution and our communities. We are thrilled to embark on this transformative journey with the Mellon Foundation by our side."

Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America, with the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country. Joblessness is the single most important predictor of recidivism. ESPHS’s workforce development programs offer returning citizens the opportunity to gain essential job skills, educational qualifications, and program development leadership, enhancing their employability. This also affects the museum’s visitors’ understanding of the criminal justice system. In particular, LEAD Fellows engage the public in discussions about the impacts of mass incarceration and their own lived experience, catalyzing a more nuanced understanding of formerly incarcerated people, the challenges they face, and the positive contributions they make in their communities. This perspective shift enables society to move away from punitive attitudes toward a more compassionate and rehabilitative approach, fostering a safer and more inclusive environment for all.

Returning citizens who successfully complete these workforce development programs often become advocates for change, drawing from their unique experiences to inform and engage others. By sharing their stories and expertise, they become influential voices in promoting rehabilitation and community building, emerging as powerful agents of societal transformation.

About The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation:
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive. Learn more at

About the LEAD Fellowship at ESPHS:
The LEAD (Lived Experience Activating Dialogue) Fellowship is a holistic reentry initiative at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site that gives people coming home from prison the tools and support they need to transform their lives, their communities, and the world.

Eastern State Penitentiary invites recently incarcerated people to join a true fellowship of their peers, working together to realize their full potential and reacclimate to life outside prison walls — mind, body, and soul. Every LEAD Fellow is paid for their participation and receives hands-on job training, establishing a pathway to meaningful, sustainable career opportunities in the museum field or other fields of interest. LEAD Fellows are also provided access to vital resources like housing support, financial education, and career services.

In addition to providing structured reentry support, the LEAD Fellowship is a bridge-building program that has a positive impact both on-site at Eastern State Penitentiary and in the community beyond. LEAD Fellows share their unique perspectives as formerly incarcerated people with museum visitors, unraveling stereotypes about people who have been incarcerated and augmenting the conversations about the criminal justice system happening at Eastern State every day. LEAD Fellows also engage community members beyond the walls of ESP in discussions about the impact of mass incarceration and their own lived experiences.

About the Preservation Trades Center at ESPHS:
The Preservation Trades Center (PTC) began five years ago to train the next generation of craftworkers while preserving ESPHS. The PTC engages people historically underrepresented in the building trades, particularly returning citizens, women, and people of color, in paid, hands-on training opportunities in masonry and carpentry with a pipeline to sustainable living-wage careers in the skilled trades. While the PTC does not work exclusively with returning citizens, every crew since 2021 has included returning citizens. The PTC currently offers one Masonry Academy and one Carpentry Academy annually.

The PTC is a true pipeline that effectively prepares individuals with limited trades experience to succeed in construction careers. Participants are taught skills that will serve them on projects ranging from commercial structures to historic homes. Ideal candidates are eager to learn, willing to work in challenging environments, and interested in pursuing a career in construction.

Since 2022, 100% of Academy participants have graduated. As of July 2023, 70% of 2023 Carpentry Academy graduates and 83% of 2023 Masonry Academy graduates are employed in the construction sector. Of the Carpentry cohort, seven graduates joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 158. Of the Masonry cohort, three have joined Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local #1, one has joined Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 592, and another is employed by the Cement Masons within the Philadelphia Water Department.

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.

For more information, visit and follow Eastern State Penitentiary on Facebook, Instagram, X, Threads, and Tik Tok.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner