Tourists behind bars: Old prisons cater to the curious

Sat Sep 21, 2013 3:59pm EDT
 
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By Kevin Murphy

JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Halfway through a tour of the bleak, deserted Missouri State Penitentiary - notorious in its day for assaults, murders and gas chamber executions - nurse Donna Springer tried to explain why she wanted to visit such a place.

"Well, it's like ... 'This could have happened to me,'" said Springer. "You have a fascination with it in some way."

Former prisons, complete with gift shops and paranormal components, have become increasingly popular tourist destinations in America and abroad. Playing to the public curiosity about life behind bars, more than 100 former prisons and jails have tours or museums, according to a list posted on the website of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Some, such as Eastern State and the Missouri prison, report steadily rising visitor numbers.

The 177-year-old Missouri penitentiary in Jefferson City is the biggest tourist draw in town, aside from the State Capitol building a few blocks away, tourism officials said.

"People are intrigued about what is behind those walls." said Diane Gillespie, executive director of the Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Missouri penitentiary had more than 19,000 visitors last year, up 10 percent from the previous year. Visitors pay $12 for a two-hour tour and $25 for a three-hour, in-depth look that includes additional areas of the compound, once the largest in the United States. From 2009, the tours have provided a new use for the prison, which had an uncertain future when it closed in 2004.

Some other prisons in the U.S. also report a booming tourism business. Eastern State Penitentiary, with a "nighttime haunted house," draws about 160,000 people, up an average of 20 percent annually in recent years. The Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise drew about 42,000 visitors last year, up from 28,000 four years earlier, officials said.   Continued...

 
A visitor photographs a jail cell during a tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City September 12, 2013 . REUTERS/Sarah Conard