Tours are booming for Michigan’s most famous lockup city, with visitors coming from across the state and beyond to go on the Jackson Historic Prison Tour.
Its highlight: the infamous 7-Block at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan. It closed in 2007.
The eerie 7-Block, still part of a razor-wire enclosed campus with four other active prisons, echoes with drama. It’s where Dr. Jack Kevorkian stayed when he first arrived – cell 82, level three – and where hundreds of men, women and children were held on a single night during the 1967 Detroit riot.
Visitors can sit in the creepy cells, smell the dank air, read the blue-cover prison rule books still attached to the cell bars and imagine life for the 515 prisoners held there.
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One thing visitors can’t do? Take pictures. To see 7-Block, you have to come in person.
Judy Gail Krasnow, the tour founder who worked with the state to add 7-Block as part of her historical prison tour last year, said Jackson’s prisons are a potential tourism gold mine.
Her tour garnered just 400 tourists in 2008 but 3,200 last year. This year, “we already have almost 50 tours booked.”
Like California’s Alcatraz, Jackson has endless prison stories just waiting to be told.
“I want to raise the spirit of Jackson’s prison past,” Krasnow said. “It’s not an embarrassment. It’s history.”
In the stark symmetry of the prison building known as 7-Block, it’s easy to imagine bad things happening.
Rails are garish yellow. Bars are white. The floor is grim gray. There are windows, but the light is filtered, like at a cheap motel, so you can’t see out. You go through a door into the yard; looped razor wire menaces from atop every fence.
Nobody would ever want to come here.
Except as a tourist, of course.
“I loved it. I loved the way it looked like the prisons you see on TV, but you can see it in person,” said Jan Herrick of Kalamazoo, Mich. “For some reason, prisons really fascinate me.”
They fascinate others, too. From West Virginia to California, prison tours are drawing crowds.
Since the Jackson Historic Prison Tour added the visit to 7-Block at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan last year, interest has spiked, according to Krasnow: “People like to see the real thing. A lot of the fascination is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
That said, the four-and-a-half-hour tour has to be one of the strangest prison tours – and one of the strangest tours, period – in the world.
You see two prisons, two art studios and the tour guide’s apartment.
There are odd juxtapositions – you eat a turkey sandwich, visit a painter in his bright studio, then go to the basement to see 19th-century, solitary- confinement cells.
You take a bus two miles north to Blackman Township’s prison complex and see 7-Block, which looks ancient but actually was in use until five years ago. Krasnow interviewed former warden Charles Anderson and former inmates to learn the cellblock’s inside stories.
What you’ll also see
Besides the visit to 7-Block, here are tour highlights:
• Michigan’s First State Prison: All tours begin at Jackson’s original prison, which operated from 1838 to 1934. It has been remodeled as the Armory Arts Village, with 62 apartments and artists studios.
In this old prison, inmates wore ball and chains on the grounds and labored in prison factories. Living conditions were primitive. In one wing, 328 men lived in tiny cells with no electricity, heat, ventilation or plumbing.
The prison had a band, a baseball team, a newspaper and a lot of interaction with the community.
“Mothers brought their daughters to get their wedding dresses made at the prison tailor shop,” Krasnow said. “Prisoners made exquisite furniture.”
Although Michigan abolished capital punishment in 1846, some conditions likely were worse than death.
Investigators once found that 20 men had been confined for 17 years straight in solitary confinement. When inspectors got them out, “nine couldn’t talk, all were malnourished and six died right away,” Krasnow said. “Everyone was thrown into solitary for two weeks to break their spirit. They didn’t care if you stole a loaf of bread or murdered someone.”
The chance to see the old prison appealed to Carol Vandenberg of Kalamazoo. Her grandfather, Walter Stoops, was an inmate there in the 1920s.
“I never met him, but I’d always heard there was a black sheep in the family,” she said. “I couldn’t pass up this trip.”
• Artists’ studios. Lou Cubille and Carol A. Kent welcome tourists in their studios.
• Krasnow’s apartment. Her two-level apartment is the size of 36 prison cells. Yes, she has sensed ghosts in the apartment, or did until she put up a crucifix – even though she’s Jewish.
–”The building is 174 years old, so if the spirits have seeped into the brick and floors, that’s understandable,” Krasnow said. Some of her tours are for paranormal groups.
• –Old Prison Gift Shop: Opened in April, it features artwork by former prison inmates, a prison cookbook and T-shirts that say, “I spent time in Jackson (Michigan ).”