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.
highlight: the infamous 7-Block at the former State Prison
of Southern Michigan. It closed in 2007.
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
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.
thing visitors can’t do? Take pictures. To see 7-Block,
you have to come in person.
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
tour garnered just 400 tourists in 2008 but 3,200 last
year. This year, "we already have almost 50 tours
California’s Alcatraz, Jackson has endless prison
stories just waiting to be told.
want to raise the spirit of Jackson’s prison past,"
Krasnow said . "It’s not an embarrassment. It’s
the stark symmetry of the prison building known as
7-Block, it’s easy to imagine bad things happening.
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
would ever want to come here.
as a tourist, of course.
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."
fascinate others, too. From West Virginia to California,
prison tours are drawing crowds.
the Jackson Historic Prison Tour added the visit to
7-Block at the former State Prison of Southern Michigan
last year, interest has spiked, said Judy Gail Krasnow,
like to see the real thing. A lot of the fascination is,
‘There but for the grace of God go I.’"
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.
see two prisons, two art studios and the tour guide’s
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.
take a bus 2 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.
1981, the Detroit Free Press’ Taro Yamasaki won a
Pulitzer Prize for photographing life inside the prison,
the visit to 7-Block, here are tour highlights:
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.
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.
prison had a band, a baseball team, a newspaper and a lot
of interaction with the community.
brought their daughters to get their wedding dresses made
at the prison tailor shop," Krasnow said.
"Prisoners made exquisite furniture."
Michigan abolished capital punishment in 1846, some
conditions likely were worse than death.
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
chance to see the old prison appealed to Carol Vandenberg
of Kalamazoo. Her grandfather, Walter Stoops, was an
inmate there in the 1920s.
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."
studios. Lou Cubille and Carol A. Kent welcome tourists in
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
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.
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 )."
Jackson Historic Prison Tour runs through Oct. 31 and
takes participants to Michigan’s First State Prison
(1838-1934), now the Armory Arts Village, and 7-Block
(1934-2007) at the former State Prison of Southern
last three and a half to four and a half hours, depending
on the itinerary, and are by appointment only. The minimum
group size is four, and no child younger than 9 will be
are $35 per person; groups of 20 or more can get discounts
and a package price that includes lunch.
more information, go to