Former prison sites have often used spooky and grotesque prison props to entertain visitors. But instead of scaring visitors, some sites have switched to educating them about mass incarceration, according to an article published by The Marshall Project in partnership with Mother Jones.
At San Quentin State Prison, one of the most infamous prisons in the United States because of its violent and bloody reputation, residents lead tours, educating visitors on rehabilitative programs and mass incarceration.
“I have been incarcerated for 21 years and a San Quentin tour guide for five-plus years. I went inside SQ’s infamous dungeon and never wanted to go back,” said Tommy Wickerd. “My efforts toward rehabilitation and accountability in 20 years would make me an asset to the community instead of spending lengthy time in prison.”
Just a few miles from San Quentin, “The Big Lockup” is an exhibit about mass incarceration at Alcatraz, formerly a United States Penitentiary in California. This exhibit educates people about the untold stories concerning the country’s history of incarceration.
On the other side of the country lies Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, opened in 1826. It still houses 1,500 people, which complicates the ethics of building a museum to tell the prison’s history, said the article.
“We’re not at all interested in pandering to voyeurism. And we’re not interested in exploiting, as some museums do, the paranormal interest,” said Brent Glass, executive director of the soon-to-open Sing Sing Prison Museum.
Prison tourism in the past has relied heavily on spookiness and gruesomeness as entertainment, at the expense of prisoners’ dignity, noted the article.
This type of tourism is taking place in a country where criminal justice reform movements have gathered steam in recent years.
An interest in mass incarceration has been sparked by the rise in prison populations and outbreaks of deadly violence. The change in public perception of prison tourism reflects the stresses and inequities of the penal system, reported the article.
“The way the United States approaches prison tourism re-inscribes the kind of politics that support mass-incarceration,” said Jill McCorkel,a professor of criminology at Villanova University.
Some prisons are less educational and more grotesque. At the West Virginia Penitentiary, people can sit in a non-operational electric chair. There are pictures of smiling children sitting in the electric chair.
Museum curators for years have debated the appropriateness of haunted houses in prisons; this is a part of rethinking how history is memorialized.
The United States Prison system faces the same problems as before: overcrowding, the spread of infectious diseases, gang violence, solitary confinement, mental illness, and a disproportionate number of Black and Brown incarcerated people, said the article.
Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is built on a former slave plantation. When visitors enter the prison they are greeted with an image of a White man on horseback overseeing a group of Black men in the fields.
At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, an event called “Terror Behind the Walls” has enticed visitors every Halloween for years with a haunted house featuring evil doctors and zombie inmates. But last year, the museum changed direction and decided to emphasize education instead. “The whole subject of incarceration is less a source of amusement than it was 10 years ago in America, but there’s still like a layer of people thinking that it’s funny. But it’s not funny to us,” said Sean Kelly, Eastern State’s senior vice president and director of interpretation.