Prison Wrap-Up: Alcatraz, Eastern State Lure Thousands Behind Bars

Though prison tourism is a growing travel trend, some San Francisco voters recently moved to abolish the foremost prison attraction in the world: Alcatraz.

On Super Tuesday, San Francisco voted on a proposition that would call on the city to attempt to acquire the former prison from the National Parks Service – and replace it with a peace monument. The proposition failed, with nearly 70 percent voting against it, and the folks behind Alcatraz visitation weren't exactly surprised.

"De-authorization of a national park is extremely rare," said Michael Feinstein, information specialist for Golden Gate National Parks. "And with more than 1.5 million visitors every year, Alcatraz is certainly not hurting for interest. It's the most visited former penitentiary in the world."

Not only does Alcatraz pull the most visitors, it was the trailblazer in prison tourism, opening to the public in 1972. Though it remains the prison icon, other former penitentiaries like the Ohio State Reformatory (of "Shawshank Redemption" fame) and Philadelphia's legendary Eastern State Prison are also attracting mobs of the morbidly curious – sometimes upwards of 5,000 people a night during the high Halloween season.

Here's the shortlist of top prison tourism sites in the country.


There's no competing with Alcatraz's mystique. Until its closing in 1963, the prison housed the inmates other federal prisons didn't want to deal with – infamous convicts like Al Capone and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud.

Its island location, in the middle of San Francisco Bay's hypothermia-inducing 59-degree waters, made escape impossible – though there were several attempts.

"Tourists from all over the world know [Alcatraz] from the movies – like 'The Rock' and 'Escape from Alcatraz' with Clint Eastwood," Feinstein said, adding that out of the 1.5 million tourists drawn to Alcatraz every year, many are foreign.

Of course, that kind of appeal was a bit of a surprise.

"When the federal government first opened it to visitors …. they weren't sure if there would be any interest," Feinstein said. "They were wrong. Interest has grown every year, and now it's become a worldwide prison icon."

Most people associate Alcatraz with Capone or the Birdman, who, according to a conversation Feinstein said he had with a former prison guard, was far more dangerous than Burt Lancaster portrayed him in "The Birdman of Alcatraz." He was, the guard reportedly told Feinstein, "the type of man who could kill his own mother."

The prison's built over the remains of a former military prison – underground, dungeon-like cells that are not open to the public. Feinstein says private tours have been arranged for dignitaries and other well-connected visitors.

Alcatraz is the second-most visited spot in the Bay Area, after the Golden Gate Bridge. It's open every day but Christmas and Jan. 1, and is reached easily by ferry. Find out more at

Eastern State Prison

Unlike Alcatraz, which gets federal funding for its upkeep and renovation, Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, is deliberately kept as unrestored as possible.

"In the early days, we used to make visitors wear hard hats and sign a waiver," says Sean Kelley, Program Director for the Eastern State Penitentiary Preservation Society. "We've deliberately left the building in a state of semi-ruin. It's surprisingly beautiful, but eerie."

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