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 http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz.
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."
Now, they make ongoing restorations as necessary for safety, though the quarter-million visitors each year still have to sign a waiver to tour the grounds.
"Eastern State was the first true penitentiary," Kelley says of the prison built in 1828. "Before, prisons were thought of as dungeons, a place for punishment. But this was the grandfather of a whole new way of thinking – that prisons are places for inmates to be penitent, to sit in solitude and contemplate their crimes."
So the prison was outfitted with running water and central heat – at a time when not even the White House had those amenities — making Eastern State controversial from the start.
Now the model has been copied all over the world – both in its rehabilitative intent and in its physical structure: a star shape, with cell blocks extending out from a central guard area. According to Kelley, "there are 300 copies on five continents, mostly in Europe."
The prison closed in 1970 and, after decades of debate over its demolition, re-opened to visitors in 1995. The popular audio tour, narrated by Steve Buscemi, guides visitors through cells of famous inmates such as Al Capone, who served a yearlong sentence in near-luxury, with antique furniture and fancy rugs that guards allowed him to bring in.
Find more visitation details at http://www.easternstate.org.
Ohio State Reformatory
Two things make this gothic-style prison in Mansfield, Ohio, popular with tourists: "The Shawshank Redemption" and the supernatural.
The reformatory was completely closed down on Dec., 31, 1990, and reopened five years later as a museum. "Shawshank" was filmed in the interim.
"It's over 100 years old and in remarkable shape," says Susan Nirode, the prison's operations manager. The 50,000 visitors it draws annually come not only for the historical tours and a wildly popular haunted house in the fall, but also for special events, from weddings and bridal shows to corporate events and formal banquets.
"At this time, there are only two weekend nights that remain unbooked for the whole of 2008," says Nirode. "Otherwise, it's completely booked up."
A big draw is the Ghost Hunt. These are scheduled overnight lock-ins for 100 aficionados and dilettantes of the paranormal. "At check-in, we give them the rules and regulations speech and then a 90-minute guided tour," says Nirode. "Then we turn out the lights, and they're on their own until 6 a.m. There are no sleeping accommodations."
So what are these people doing all night? Ferreting through the dark with cameras, audio recorders, electromagnetic field detectors. The only no-no's are Ouji Boards and séances, since, as Nirode admonishes, "there are too many uncertainties with that and too many documented cases of bad things happening."
Those cases have lured the SciFi Channel's "Ghost Hunters" and even the Travel Channel to the grounds. But what exactly do people discover there? Is it really haunted?
"Personally, yeah, I believe it," says Nirode. "I've been here locking up, and I hear someone walking down the hall jingling keys. I look, and there's no one else here but me. Another time, I was in the shower room with a production assistant for a commercial, and someone whispered the word 'Sienna.' It happens quite frequently."
Find out for yourself by booking space on a scheduled Ghost Hunt, or find out more about the regular daytime tour at http://www.mrps.org.
Of course, everyone's immediate association with Folsom Prison, which lies outside Sacramento, Cal., is Johnny Cash, who famously played and recorded an album there in 1968.
And that's part of the reason that Folsom makes our list. And, unlike the others, Folsom is still a functional, working prison. There are no official tours available. Yet.
Mary Ann McAlea of the Folsom Tourism Bureau is working to create a program that would allow visitors to tour the facility: "We're working on a partnership with the prison so we can structure group tours."
Originally, the town of Folsom tried to distance itself from association with the prison. But now the townspeople are starting to embrace it. "The interest is so huge – not only from the standpoint of it being a working prison, but also because of its historical beauty," McAlea continued. "It reminds me of 1940s prison movies."
The challenges of setting up structured tours are numerous. "Going inside, we have to determine what components are G-rated, so to speak. It's a working prison, so it's not censored," McAlea explained.
But the tradeoff is big, too. McAlea's goal is to use the tourism to raise funds for both the prison and the tourism bureau, while creating a positive message about the corrections department in California.
"We don't want to be sensationalist," said McAlea. "Because it's a functioning prison, it offers a chance to reflect on our society and this big issue we all face. No matter where you fall on the political continuum, seeing something like this has impact."
It is possible to arrange a private tour of the facility, and some have done it. And there are some strict rules in place – the dress code, for example. Obviously you can't wear anything provocative or incendiary, but also no jeans. Some prisoners wear denim shirts, and visitors are expected to stand apart from them in terms of dress.
There is also a small museum on the edge of the prison grounds run by retired correctional officers. Learn more at http://visitfolsom.com.
Cell Block Allure
Why the fascination with prison in the first place? Where did this trend come from?
Alcatraz may have popularized it in the U.S., with its 1.5 million visitors a year, but the Tower of London's near-millenium of history draws almost double that number.
As Kelly put it, "There's something very taboo about prisons. The walls keep the prisoners in – but also keep the public out. People know they're not supposed to be inside. It's a bit of thrill."
Nirode agrees. "To actually be inside a cell and look out and know that you only have a 6-by-9 area, it's very humbling," she said. "A lot of people just want to see what it's like."
Judging from the numbers and San Francisco's disinterest in reforming the country's most visible reformatory, she's exactly right.