Jackson museums try to lure tourists behind bars

Francis X. Donnelly

Jackson —This prison town never liked being called a prison town.

But, in the last few years, it stopped hiding its vast connections with correctional facilities. Former prisons have even become draws for a budding tourism industry.

Still, the relationship remains complicated. Take the Cell Block 7 Museum, which is a museum in, of all places, a prison — the former State Prison of Southern Michigan.

Judy Krasnow, who overcame local resistance in starting a prison tourism business, had taken tour groups to Cell Block 7 before it was turned into a museum in 2014. The state Department of Corrections, which owns Cell Block 7, declined to renew its contract with her.

What’s more: The DOC had done so at the behest of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Experience Jackson tourism bureau, agencies that Krasnow said are supposed to work for local companies like hers.

She said she had built up a successful business only to have it whisked away. Her tours plummeted. She eventually reached a financial deal with the Ella Sharp Museum, which runs the prison museum for the MDOC, that allowed Krasnow to resume offering tours and keep some of the profits.

Krasnow’s company, Historic Prison Tours, is slowly rebuilding. But, two years later, the issue still rankles.

“The museum wouldn’t exist if not for me,” she said. “It was a nasty, nasty horrible moment in my life.”

Chamber and Experience Jackson officials said Krasnow lacked the staff and experience to turn Cell Block 7 into a year-round tourist attraction.

Also, they believe Krasnow and Ella Sharp Museum complement each other in a way that can bolster prison tourism in Jackson. Ella Sharp was a Jackson resident who left her estate to the city to use as a park and museum in the early 20th century.

“We’re not dividing pieces of a pie,” said Mindy Bradish, chamber president. “We’re trying to create a new pie and make it as big as possible.”

Indeed, Krasnow and the Ella Sharp Museum are interested in bringing more tourists to Jackson, and doing so by delving into a city history steeped with prisons.

They were an economic blessing that became part of the city’s sociological makeup, historians say. For 177 years, they have been one of the largest employers in the region.

Cheap labor of inmates attracted industry from around the nation. It turned the city into an industrial powerhouse and, when the industries withered, the prisons were still standing.


In the early 1900s, Jackson was a veritable hotbed of corset-making with no fewer than 16 factories producing the garment.

The original prison, Michigan State Prison, just four blocks from downtown, was part of the city’s social fabric.

Families picnicked on prison grounds to listen to inmate bands. Women brought their daughters to the prison tailor shop to have wedding dresses made. Jazz musicians and barbershop quartets from the prison played in night clubs.

“Like it or not, the prison is a key part of our identity,” said Brad Flory, a former columnist for the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper. “It’s shaped our economy, our people and our culture.”

Attempts at disassociation

Jackson’s prisons were the first in the state and among the largest in the world. Four correctional facilities, which are still being used, sit just outside the city.

But none of them have ever been named Jackson. The city didn’t want to be associated with them.

When Michigan State Prison closed in 1935, the city convinced the state Legislature to name its replacement the State Prison of Southern Michigan, former warden Perry Johnson wrote in his 2014 book, “Jackson: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Prison.”

Johnson said administrators were told to always use the proper name in letters, reports and other correspondence.

Privately, everyone called it Jackson prison, he said.

“The city was sensitive about being identified as a prison town,” he said.

In the 1980s, local merchants pushed to remove signs along Interstate 94 that read “Prison Area: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” They felt publicizing the lockup’s proximity was bad for business.

But residents objected, saying officials were more concerned about local commerce than people’s safety. The signs were returned.

For years and years, Flory wrote columns that said the city needed to stop ignoring and embrace its connection to prison. And for years and years, nothing was done.

That all changed in 2008 with the arrival of an outsider.

Change in plans

Krasnow was a writer living in Miami when she heard an NPR report about a former Jackson prison being turned into apartments for artists.

She was so intrigued she sold her home, moved into the former Michigan State Prison and proceeded to build a prison tourism business from scratch.

The fiery Krasnow, whom one friend likened to a spark plug, joined a travel marketing group, attended numerous tourism conferences, partnered with sightseeing spots and read everything she could about tourism.

“I was getting a graduate degree in tourism,” she said.

The first tours were limited to the prison-turned-apartments, Armory Arts Village, where Krasnow lives; others live there, too. It still has vestiges of the 1839 original prison, including guard turrets, curved bars outside windows and brick walls with painted cell numbers.

In 2011, Krasnow wrangled with the state Department of Corrections for nine months to expand her business to the Cell Block 7 location. The State Prison of Southern Michigan was hard to manage so it was broken into several facilities in 1988.

The hulking cell block, which has 515 cells, was an immediate hit.

Business blossomed from 400 tourists in 2008 to 4,000 in 2013. It grew to the point where Krasnow had an office, hired tour guides and opened a gift shop, Crook’s Book Nook.

For a county starved for tourists, it was a godsend.

“We put people in hotels, in restaurants, in the Michigan Theater (where the firm holds presentations),” guide Jim Guerriero said.

Then in 2014, the Department of Corrections announced it was allowing Ella Sharp Museum to take over Cell Block 7.

Krasnow felt blindsided. She threatened a lawsuit.

Her number of tour buses dropped from 66 in 2013 to three in 2014.

A subsequent agreement with Ella Sharp allowed her to resume visiting in late 2015. She and the Ella Sharp declined to discuss the deal’s terms.

The business is slowly returning with 11 tour buses in 2015 and 44 buses with 2,500 people this year.

Bob Michaels, a spokesman for Experience Jackson, said his group and the chamber thought the Ella Sharp had more resources to run a prison museum.

“They’ve done it and know how to do it,” he said.

Around the prisons

Last month, Krasnow, Guerriero and Steve Rudolph led a tour of Armory Arts Village and the Cell Block 7 Museum.

About 60 residents of the Bridgewater retirement community in Brownstown Township had signed up with a sightseeing company for a mystery tour, meaning they had no idea where they were going.

They were surprised to arrive at Armory Arts.

Retiree Sue Erickson said, as a child, she had frequently passed the prison during family vacations. She never imagined visiting it.

“It’s around Halloween. Maybe that’s why (the sightseeing company) picked it,” she said.

It definitely wasn’t your usual tourist trip.

In the next six hours, they visited the tour guide’s apartment, viewed solitary confinement cells along an underground tunnel, learned why prisoners always smelled like soap and watched Krasnow, with a Scottish brogue and 1860s garb, portray a former inmate who had poisoned her three children.

The guides described the prisons’ history, what life was like inside, some daring escapes and the exploits of the most notorious inmates.

In the 1800s, they said, the prison used canaries as a warning system for methane. Why methane? Because the building had no plumbing so buckets were used as toilets.

The retirees were impressed with the guides’ depth of knowledge, which came from visiting prisons, talking to former staff and inmates, and reading everything they could get their hands on.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Mary Nadzam said. “I’m surprised how extensive it is. These people know their stuff.”


Inside the walls

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, the tour moved to Cell Block 7.

If the guides, with their deep knowledge and numerous stories, were the focus of the morning tour, the star of the afternoon excursion was the prison itself.

The retirees walked along the floor, the length of a football field, sandwiched between five floors of prison cells. Garish yellow railing spread from the floor to ceiling.

They walked into cells, slipping past sliding metal doors, and lay on the beds.

It was like being in “The Shawshank Redemption” without the inmates.

“It’s scary. It almost feels dangerous,” visitor Julie Marotta said.

The guides continued to tell prison stories. Among those listening, besides the visitors, was a museum staffer.

Among the inmates they discussed were Ron LeFlore, who left prison to become a star for the Tigers; Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the assisted suicide advocate; and members of the Purple Gang, the infamous Detroit crime syndicate during the Prohibition era.

Rudolph said a former inmate told him that prisoners are either predators or prey. A new inmate must quickly establish that he isn’t the latter.

The inmate also said the bathrooms, located far from the guards, were the most dangerous spot. Inmates rarely lingered in the shower longer than 30 seconds, which is why many smelled like soap.

Krasnow said the MDOC asked her, during tours of Cell Block 7, to leave out the more graphic details of prison life.

So she saves the juicier stuff for Armory Arts Village.


Twitter: @francisXdonnell


If you go

For info on Historic Prison Tours: Call (517) 817-8960 or visit HistoricPrisonTours.com. Tickets: $30 for combined tour of Cell Block 7 and Armory Arts Village.

For info on Cell Block 7 Museum: Call (517) 745-6813 or visit CellBlock7.org. Tickets: $15 adult; $10 senior, military or police; $8 child.