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In recent years, the popularity surrounding scripted shows like Orange Is the New Black and Wentworth, reality shows like 60 Days In, Locked Up Abroad, and Girls Incarcerated, and true crime docs like Making A Murderer, has skyrocketed interest in the justice system and prisons.
People are curious to know what life is really like behind bars, but short of committing a crime so you can actually live in a prison, is it possible to find out what prison life is like? Can you tour a prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
While each state has their own rules on this, generally you can’t tour a prison that is currently operational. Federal prisons do not allow tours, either. Here’s the thing, prisons aren’t zoos. You can’t just show up to a prison and ask to take a tour. The guards would be incredibly suspicious about this request, and having outsiders inside prison walls is a huge security risk.
Now, there is an exception when it comes to religious organizations and lawyers. Some prisons do allow religious groups to go behind the prison walls to speak with inmates, but it isn’t really a tour.
For lawyers, sometimes they are allowed to go onto prison grounds for legal reasons, but any outside guest has to have the warden’s approval.
Some of the older prisons, like Folsom Prison in California, have a museum on the grounds that you can visit. But, you won’t be allowed to go anywhere outside of the museum or the visiting room. To visit a prisoner in the visiting room, you must be on the approved visiting list, and there is a process to that.
There are also scared straight-type programs in many states that will bring in groups of young people who have been getting into trouble with the law because of petty crime. The groups will come in to tour the prison grounds to try to scare them into getting their lives together and avoiding prison time.
The only way a person from the outside can really get behind prison walls and find out what life is like on the inside is to volunteer. Most prisons allow volunteers to come in to teach a class or lead some kind of group or organization. But, if you want to just show up to a prison and take a tour, that is not going to happen.
If a prison is closed, the rules are completely different. There are many prisons across the country that closed years ago that now have guided or self-guided tours. Alcatraz in San Francisco is probably one of the most popular prisons that welcomes millions of visitors each year.
Ohio State Reformatory is another popular destination because it was the filming location of Shawshank Redemption. The society who restored the prison offers a self-guided tour called, “The Shawshank Trail,” but the sewers aren’t included.
Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona and Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania are also popular tourist spots. Yuma has been in Westerns like, 3:10 to Yuma, and Eastern State often appears in ghost hunting TV shows.
The Liberty Hotel in Boston was once the Charles Street Jail before it closed in 1973. Now, it is a 5-star luxury hotel where visitors can dine in the jail-themed restaurant.
Many states also give tours of their old prisons, like Old Joliet Prison Tours in Illinois and Missouri State Penitentiary Tours in Jefferson City, MO.
As a rule, the only way you are going to be able to find out what life is like in prison is to end up in prison after committing a crime. But, I don’t recommend that. Sometimes, when a new prison opens, they allow public tours before prisoners are transferred into the facility. But again, it just depends on the facility.
The closest way you are going to get the chance to tour a prison is to visit one that has been closed for a long time.
Have you ever toured an old prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: 5 Crazy U.S. Prisons You Can Visit https://www.travelpirates.com/captains-log/5-fascinating-us-prisons-you-can-visit_5877 Missouri State Penitentiary https://www.missouripentours.com/tours/ Prison Tours https://www.travelchannel.com/interests/history/articles/prison-tours
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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