5 Prisons for Law-Abiding Citizens

visit prison - Eastern State Penitentiary
Flickr, Celine Aussourd

In this lull between fun summer TV like “True Blood” and the fall premieres of network television shows, many people have been binge watching the Netflix comedy, “Orange is the New Black.” Set at a women’s prison in Rockland County, New York, the series has generated new interest in jail. (From the outside, at least.) Here are five notable prison museums around the world with flexible visiting hours for an easy escape.

Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA
Built as an “inescapable” prison on an island off San Francisco, Alcatraz has had quite a few famous inmates, including Al Capone. The federal prison was closed in 1963 and has been a museum for several decades. In addition to the prison museum, it also has the country’s oldest lighthouse and a permanent exhibition on the historic Native American occupation. Tickets are a steep $30 and up per adult, but they include transportation, since you can’t make it off “the Rock” alive.Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA
Another stop on Al Capone’s “jail tour,” this Center City Philadelphia jail has been the set for several films including “Twelve Monkeys” and the Transformers sequel, and many TV shows about ghosts and jails. The self-guided audio tour (narrated by Steve Buscemi!) details the history of the prison, active from 1829 to 1969. Regular tickets are $14, and look out for special events; the Halloween Haunted House is especially popular.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison, Warsaw, Poland
Telling another part of the Holocaust, these two related historical sites in Warsaw show what it was like to be interrogated and imprisoned in the gruesome Nazi occupation. Part of the Polish city’s excellent collection of museums, they are free to visit and well-maintained, though very somber.

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The isolation of the small island near Cape Town made it a fitting site for a leper colony, a military training station and a place for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was the most famous of former inmates for 18 years; he was one of dozens imprisoned during apartheid. Tickets are about $22, including ferry transportation to and from the mainland, a bus tour of the island and “interaction” with a former prisoner. President Obama visited the island and museum this summer, and was “deeply humbled” by the experience.

Tuel Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The secret prison of Pol Pot, dictator of Cambodia in the 1970s and leader of the Khmer Rouge, Tuel Sleng is now a museum cataloging the genocide perpetrated there. The museum contains the 6,000 detailed photographs and records of inmates left by prison staff, though as many as 30,000 were said to have been detained, tortured and murdered there. The museum is preserved as it was found in 1979, and is an important site, along with the “Killing Fields,” documenting and memorializing the victims of this dark regime.

Would you visit a prison?

Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

gas chamberYou know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%prison museumsOne of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:
chain gang

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Alcatraz Marks 50th Anniversary Of Famous Escape

Alcatraz
They said Alcatraz was escape-proof, but 50 years ago yesterday, three prisoners made an ingenious break out, paddled out into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay and disappeared.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were ready to bust out of prison. Over the past year they had patiently chipped away at the air vents in their respective cells with spoons. At night they’d replace the vents and cover the expanding tunnels with pieces of colored cardboard.

On the night of the breakout they squirmed through the tunnels into an unused service corridor and made their way to the roof. To keep the guards from noticing they were gone, they left behind dummy heads in their beds made of paper maché and real hair gathered from the prison barbershop.

From the roof they climbed the barbed wire fence and floated away on a raft made of rubber raincoats. They were never seen again. Fragments of their raft and plywood paddles were found on Angel Island, two miles away from Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft and a car was stolen that night.

A fourth man, Allen West, didn’t make it to the rendezvous in time and was left behind.

Did the three men escape? Despite many rumors, none of them were ever found. A ship’s captain said he spotted a body floating in the bay wearing a prison uniform. The body wasn’t recovered. Their files remain open.

%Gallery-158021%According to legend, they would return to Alcatraz for a visit on the 50th anniversary. As unlikely as that sounds, US Marshal Michael Dyke spent yesterday on Alcatraz hoping to catch the aged fugitives. He left at the end of the day disappointed.

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” started life as a fort. During the Civil War, local Confederate sympathizers and privateers were imprisoned there. It continued as a military prison through World War I, when it housed conscientious objectors. Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1933 and was used to keep the most troublesome prisoners. Its guests included such model citizens as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. It was closed in 1963.

Now Alcatraz is a National Park and open to the public. Visitors can see the prisoners’ cells and other areas, as well as the escape route of Morris and the Anglin brothers. All access to the island is via the private ferry company Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33. Check out the gallery for some views of the prison, as well an intriguing shots of the escape route.

[Photo courtesy Bruce C. Cooper]