By Christopher Zoukis

The Michigan Department of Corrections has opened a prison museum — at the still-in-operation State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson.

Opened June 25, 2014, the Cell Block 7 Prison Museum charges $15.00 for adults, $10.00 for a local museum society’s members, and $8.00 for children ages 5 through 12.  The museum is administered by Jackson’s Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History.  The museum is renting Cell Block 7, which has been vacant since 2007.  However, the rest of the prison still houses prisoners.

The museum will allow visitors to wander the 515 cell, five-floor cell block building.  Cells will have in them actual items available to prisoners; there will be 28 stops on the tour, including artifacts like weapons, and even a replica ball and chain.

Mindy Bradish-Orta, head of the local Chamber of Commerce, was excited about the Cell Block 7 museum.  “This is a wonderful addition to our [local] attractions,” she said.  “This will really put Jackson County on the map as a tourist attraction.”  Michigan Department of Corrections Director Dan Heyns said the museum “marks Jackson’s acceptance of its history.”  He said due to the public’s long-standing fascination with prisons, it gives the DOC a “great way to reach out to the community so they can see what we do.”

No one made comment at the museum’s ribbon cutting ceremony that addressed the long history of violence and harsh conditions at the prison, and plans were not made to abuse or beat the visitors as inmates in the past have been by the prison’s administration.  Regardless of this oversight, Heyns felt making the prison a tourist attraction is “substituting a negative with a positive.”

The Jackson museum is only one of a handful of such museums operating at still-opened prisons.  The Angola prison in Louisiana has a successful one, but the museum is still outside the gates.  It draws some 2,600 visitors a month.

The idea of using an operating prison as a tourist attraction is gaining steam in New York, too, where plans are developing to use an old power plant at Sing Sing as a prison museum.  The museum will have a reconstructed death house, complete with an electric chair.  Supporters envision displays of a metal “head cage” used when transporting prisoners and an assortment of weapons seized at the prison.

State Assemblywoman Sandra Galef wanted to make sure that visitors could enjoy the tour and avoid viewing the electric chair if they wanted to.  While a similar plan was rejected in 2005, she made it clear that “we’re at a very good point for this.”

The museum will, of course, include a gift shop.

Sources: Associated Press, www.dailyamerican.com, www.easternstate.org, www.mlive.com

Originally published in Prison Legal News, August 10, 2016.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).