Prison tour becomes popular tourist attraction in Jackson

 Guides regale

visitors with stories of prison life, 
riots, and escapes
 
By Jo Mathis
Legal News
 
When Stephen Cox was growing up in Jackson County, he sometimes wondered what was going on behind those prison walls.
Last fall, Cox, author of  “The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison,” finally got that chance when he went on the Jackson Historic Prison Tour. 
 “Growing up in a community that has a large prison, you hear a lot of things, and you don’t know whether you’re forming exactly the right impression,” said Cox, now a professor at the University of California in San Diego. “I think that’s one reason why the subtitle of my book is, ‘Image and Reality of the American Prison.’ We all have images of what prisons are like. But the reality is more complicated. And more interesting.”
Cox is a huge fan of the tour, which recently kicked off its 2014 season and runs Monday through Friday from April through October. It is among the top tourist attractions in Jackson.
The story of how the tour came to be is a fascinating story in itself.
Judy Krasnow is a former Floridian whose life was changed several years ago when she heard an NPR blurb about a former prison up in Jackson, Mich., that was being transformed to apartments and artists’ galleries.
Before she knew it, she was among the first tenants moving into space that had once housed 36 prison cells. It was also during a Michigan blizzard, the place wasn’t yet finished, and she was in tears as she wondered what she’d gotten herself into. 
And that was before she realized her new place was haunted.
Eventually, Krasnow grew to love her new home. Then someone asked for a tour. One thing led to another. And now she and two others, Steve Rudolph and Jim Guerriero, give lively, interactive tours of the site of Michigan’s first state prison.
Cox was impressed with the theatrics and the enthusiasm of the three guides, who regale the crowd with fascinating stories over many decades.
“There’s a big difference between someone who is appointed institutionally to do something, and someone who creates a role for herself,” he said, referring to Krasnow.
“You see that immediately. It’s the difference between someone functioning as a bureaucrat, and someone functioning as an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word.”
Indeed, Krasnow is so eager for tourists to get as much as possible from the tours, that at the end, she invites them into her apartment after introducing them to other artists working in their studios down the hall.
When a young boy on a recent tour asked if her place was haunted, Krasnow assured him that it was, and told of two particularly spooky tales convincing enough to change even the mind of a diehard skeptic.
Guerriero is convinced that the Jackson Historic Prison Tours will continue to be a very positive contributor to Jackson tourism.
“The history is so fascinating, and so intertwined with the growth of the town, and there are so many great stories about corrections officers and wardens and the impact on the city,” he said. “This will be a very positive thing for this community in the years ahead in terms of tourism.”
The tour begins at the opulent 84-year-old Michigan Theatre downtown. 
Guests sit back in the velvet seats and learn how in 1838, Jackson won a battle among several Michigan cities to have Michigan’s first state prison. The victory came because the city offered to donate the most land—60 acres—and because the area was full of sandstone used to build the structures.
The guides tell fascinating stories of prison life, inmates, Prohibition gangs, dismal conditions, riots, escapes and the possees that responded, corruption and reform.
“The prison literally transformed the city and helped it grow,” said Guerriero.  “It brought the railroads here. The cheap prison labor in the factories and then the farms really built Jackson. We like to convey how important that was—that the prison made Jackson what it was and actually is today.”
When told there are ghosts in the old prison, one of the day’s 21 tourists asked: “Why don’t we do this at night, then?”
“Because we’re too scared!” quipped Guerriero.
Christie Beyer of Canton bought the $60 tour for her husband’s birthday. It’s exactly the kind of thing he likes to do, she said.
And besides: They have a personal connection to the prison.
“My great grandfather was in Jackson for bootlegging,” said Dave Beyer, referring to a blind pig he ran years ago in Petoskey.
The tour ends at the site of Michigan’s first state prison, which is now Armory Arts Village, an apartment/studio/art gallery complex inhabited mostly by local artists who create their art down the long corridors from their living space.
The four-story building once had 328 (5.5 feet by 4.5 feet) cells, each of which contained a cot, an oil lamp, and a “honey bucket” in which to void.
“Can you imagine Hannibal The Bear at six-foot-five in one of those cells?” Krasnow wondered, referring to one of the most colorful inmates.
Cox said many people in Jackson have experiences to share about the prison, and the tour guides’ enthusiasm encourages that interaction.
Krasnow said she and her partners are fascinated by the history they share with those who take the tour and continue to research and keep it fresh and exciting.
“ Our groups recognize our passion, sincerity, and knowledge,” she said. “This, plus our ability to present factual history through the art of lively storytelling is why so many take the tour. A major reward is creating a positive image of Jackson as a prison town.”
For more information on the tours, go to http://historicprisontours.com.
 

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