Tourists: Go to Jail - My Family Travels

Here's something to do with naughty kids or jaded tourists who think they've seen it all — put them behind bars in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California and Louisiana.

Wherever you live in the US, it’s likely you won’t be too far away from the chance to voluntarily see “stir” or a “Big House” somewhere. For parents who think locking the kids up may be a good idea, this is a chance to see what it would be like. And for children, seeing what it’s like behind locked doors might lead to behavior modification… not to mention a dose of “Scared Straight.”


Angola’s Evolution in Louisiana


Famous prisoners such as Al Capone have long ago been sprung from some of these institutions such as Alcatraz, but in at least one prison, you can see more than a museum, and, you can play golf there as well. That’s the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (225/655-2028) an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge. About 1,000 people a month visit the museum outside the gates and become part of a group tour, which includes not only a look at the cells, but also a prison inmate guide who will answer questions.


Cathy Fontenot, Angola’s Assistant Warden at my visit, does not think it’s strange in the slightest that prisons have become popular tourist attractions, or that they may represent a growing segment of the visitor market. “People are fascinated by prisons. This is the most historic prison in the world. It dates back to right after the Civil War. It was the bloodiest in the world,” said Fontenot.


For a long time, Angola was the state’s only maximum-security prison. And that’s saying something when you consider that “Louisiana has more people locked up per capita than anywhere else in the world,” Fontenot readily admits. Angola’s past brutality has often been the subject of films and books. “We used to get 30 violent deaths a year,” Fontenot said. Considering the make-up of Angola’s prison, that was not a huge surprise. Over half of its inmates are up on murder raps, and 52% are serving life a sentence and will never be released.


Angola’s brutal reputation began to change in 1994 when Burl Cain became Warden. Similar to the Robert Redford movie, ”Brubaker,” Cain reformed the prison and opened the clanging doors in 1998 to outside visitors. “Warden Cain likes to say it takes four things to run a good prison – ‘good food, good medicine, good playing and good praying,’ ” said Fontenot.


Visitors on a two- to four-hour tour can see the old electric chair that used to dispense the final verdict, and its successor, a lethal injection chamber. Riding through the prison’s sprawling 18,000-acre grounds, visitors can’t help but be impressed by its cleanliness, due in large part to Warden Cain’s attempts to keep the prisoners gainfully occupied. Visitors also can’t help but be impressed by training programs available to inmates. “We’re the only prison in the country that offers four year college degrees from what happens to be a Bible College,” Fontenot said.


It could also be the only prison in the country with a new golf course. The nine-hole Prison View Golf course is somewhat unusual, however, in that no tee times will be scheduled without background checks and players must consent to searches. But the club has attractions such as the Number 1 tee box, elevated about 75 yards, and offering a “spectacular” view of the state’s only maximum security prison.


Non-golfing visitors will also almost certainly note during their tour that only about 1,000 inmates actually live in traditional cells, while the rest live in dormitories. If you are visiting Angola in October, be sure to check out the annual Angola Rodeo. The Rodeo takes place every Sunday that month.



“The Rock” Offshore San Francisco


Across the country, no one is believed to have escaped from Alcatraz (866/268-8729 ) in the far more urban setting of San Francisco, California. either. It shares its tough reputation with Angola, however, and prisoners used to be bluntly warned: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”


If you doubt the popularity of prisons these days, consider that up to 3,000 people a day, depending on the time of the year, manage to visit the prison. Thousands more are turned away daily because its unlikely operator, the National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, puts a limit on how many people can mingle around the relatively small prison compound.


Tourists can walk around Alcatraz as individuals without being part of a group, but numbers are restricted because visitors have to be ferried over by boats operated by the Blue & Gold Fleet. A first impression of many boat-bound visitors is the smallness of the rocky island little more than a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf, where it’s often obscured by fog. Visitors should plan to buy tickets at least a week in advance in the summer and several days ahead of time the rest of the year, according to Rich Weideman, Public Affairs officer for the National Park Service.


Visitors to Alcatraz or “The Rock” find it has a long history of confinement and that it served as the Army’s Pacific Branch Military Prison in the early part of the 1900s. Meeting the stereotype, errant Army prisoners spent their work time chipping away at rocks. National Park signs and tour guides recount a more recent history when it was re-opened in 1934 as a federal prison in response to a perceived crime wave following the Great Depression.


Alcatraz housed some of the century’s toughest and best-known crime figures. Al Capone’s five by nine-foot cell, where he typically spent 16 to 23 hours a day, is a popular stop for visitors. George “Machine Gun Kelly” also resided here, as did Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” played by Burt Lancaster in the movie of the same name.

Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania


Pennsylvania’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary (215/236-3300) in Philadelphia is so popular that it opened “several dramatic new vistas” and has expanded to remain open twice as many days as it used to be. For Halloween, part of the prison is turned into five different haunted attractions. Aptly named “Terror Behind the Walls,” the frightfully haunted offerings have been ranked the “Number 5 Best Haunted House in America” by America Online.


The imposing, castle-like structure with 1,000 skylights was considered an architectural marvel when it was completed in 1829 with a design by well-known British architect John Haviland. But it was perhaps its concept that became even more famous. Prisoners were kept in isolation in single cells, where they received the light of heaven from their skylights that would presumably entice them to develop penitence while serving time in a penitentiary. Prisoners were whipped for talking.


Visitors from all over the world came to see the prison in action. Among them was British novelist Charles Dickens, who said he only wanted to see two sights while in the United States – Niagara Falls and the prison. He was not impressed with either. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote. Despite intense debate, no one ever did research to find out if the isolation was rehabilitative.


When 12 inmates escaped through a secret tunnel in 1945, the story made national headlines. Flamboyant bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton took public credit for masterminding an escape which remains one of the most famous prison breaks in American history. Restored by the state and re-opened, the prison celebrated its tenth year of tours in April 2004 in an ironic way. It launched a state-of-the-art audio tour that allows visitors to hear cell doors slamming, guards issuing orders and televisions playing from cells. Listeners also hear a 1961 riot unfold in chaos around them. 

In 2005, an archeological team from John Milner Associates discovered and excavated the entry and exit points to reveal the secret tunnel that led Sutton and 11 other prisoners to freedom more than six decades ago. A video filmed by a robot as it “crawls” the length of the tunnel is on view.  Visitors should know, however, that the prison is open for daytime tours seven days a week, eight months a year (it’s note heated for winter visits). For more information or to inquire about private tours, visit their site. Also, don’t bring the littlest ones as the prison does not admit visitors under 7-years of age.

An Escape (Or Attempt) to Ohio State Reformatory

Built in 1886 and serving as a working prison for 94 years, the Ohio State Reformatory (800/642-8282) housed everything from cunning Confederate prisoners of war and vengeful Apache Indians to swindling vixens and pardoned inventors before closing its doors on December 31, 1990. The total number of prisoners during its operation tallied up to 155,000 men. While the facility has had a colorful collection of characters within its walls, it also has a dark past of fatal cholera epidemics, fires and dangerous riots and escape attempts.

The facility, named one of the Travel Channel’s “101 Things to do before you die,” was even the setting for the 1994 film, “The Shawshank Redemption.” The prison is also renowned for boasting the world’s largest freestanding steel cellblock.

One of the biggest draws of this historic monolith is a certain jail cell that failed to contain one genius prisoner… or at least his words. Inmate No. 30664, later known to the world as the mysterious O. Henry, became famous for his Christmas classic, “The Gift of the Magi,” which was written from his lonely cell. Now, of course, we know the then 33-year-old alcoholic bookkeeper and author as William Sidney Porter.

Tours of the reformatory are available throughout the year and certain nights are set aside for visitors who want to hunt ghosts. Reservations can be made online (fees benefit the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society) or by calling ahead.

Private Prison Showplaces

Eastern State Penitentiary’s Sean M. Kelley, director at my visit, had an intern do a study that identified 300 prisons worldwide open to the public, most of them operated by the state but a few that are in private hands.

One of the latter is The Old Jail (570/325-5259) in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, near Allentown, which was built in 1871 and sold to Tom McBride, a former Naples, Florida real estate developer, in 1995. He paid $160,000 for it and spent another $125,000 to turn it into a tourist attraction that yearly lures about 16,000 people who buy tickets to tour the prison. The museum is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Visitors can see cells where the famed Molly Maguire’s labor groups were held. A highlight of any visit is the indelible palm print. A Molly Maguire who was about to be hung claimed his innocence to the end, and his dirt-smeared hand made a palm print on the wall that legend says could never be washed away by water or even covered by paint.

Built by inmate labor, the red brick fortress that is now the Old Montana Prison (406/846-3111) is believed to have housed at least one member of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch.” It is conveniently located about halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks near Butte, Montana. Visitor highlights include photographs that depict prison life after it was built in 1871. Exhibits will confirm some movie stereotypes of life in the Big House, for example, the place where inmates actually made auto tags, and the notorious “Hole,” a lightless room for obstinate inmates who were actually fed only bread and water until the 1960s when the practice was discontinued.

Why Prison? Like Poorism at its Worst…

Kelley thinks movies and books have helped popularize the public’s desire to get behind prison walls. “I think people are fascinated by prisons because they’re such forbidden places. Everyone wants to see inside the walls,” he said. It’s obvious why people go to prison on an involuntary basis. But what continues to bring them without being forced to go? “People are intrigued by struggle,” answers Angola’s Fontenot. “And what better place can you see life’s struggles than in a prison?”

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