Prison is a terrible place, as evidenced by every prison movie ever made (our favorite: The Shawshank Redemption). But tours of old prisons can be fun and a learning experience. We can walk around, take some ominous-looking photos, think, “I feel sorry for the outlaws or gangsters who spent time in here,” and be on our merry way, maybe stopping at the gift shop before we leave. There’s just something about these old, foreboding buildings that make them compelling to visit. Here are five of the most notable prisons around the U.S. that are open for tours.
5. Ohio State Reformatory
This prison, which operated between 1896 and 1990, has found an unusual second life as a film site. A number of movies, music videos and TV series have filmed scenes here, most notably The Shawshank Redemption. And while it’s hard to find an old prison that doesn’t have a ghost tale or two in its past, this old facility in Mansfield has been featured in several ghost-hunting and paranormal shows, including the Fox Family Channel show The Scariest Places on Earth. Self-guided tours are $12 for adults and $10 for students, but for $5 more you can take a guided tour.
4. Missouri State Penitentiary
Politicians in Jefferson City back in the 1830s worried that the tiny town would lose its grip as the state capitol. The solution: Build the state prison in town. Opened in 1836, the Missouri State Penitentiary had a surprisingly long run, housing inmates until 2004. At one time during the Great Depression it was the largest prison in the country, hosting more than 5,200 inmates. The prison also had an indirect impact on American history. In 1967 a prisoner named James Earl Ray escaped; a year later, he would assassinate Martin Luther King. The site once dubbed by Time Magazine the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” today offers more than a dozen tour options. You can find everything from two-hour tours to overnight paranormal investigations and ghost hunts.
3. Wyoming Territorial Prison
Opened in 1873, this prison in Laramie, served as a federal penitentiary for almost 20 years, then a state prison until it closed in 1903. Despite its charming high school-esque appearance, the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary housed “evil-doers of all classes and kinds,” including the notorious train and bank bandit Butch Cassidy. The University of Wyoming used it as an agricultural experimental station until it opened to the public in the early 1990s as the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site. Open from April through October, the prison has been an annual winner in recent years of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence. It’s conveniently located (just off I-80) and reasonably priced (adults $5, teens $2.50, 11 and under free). And if you’re on a tight schedule, you can do a quick tour in 30 to 45 minutes, or spend longer to soak in the entire experience.
2. Eastern State Penitentiary
This massive old structure in Philadelphia looks like an ancient fortress. Yet when it opened in 1829, it was on the cutting edge of prisons. It served as the model for all 19th century penitentiaries, with its design copied by hundreds of prisons worldwide. After closing in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary fell into severe disrepair for more than 20 years before opening to the public. Many people don’t like audio tours, but the tour for this facility, narrated by quirky actor Steve Buscemi, gets rave reviews. Adult tickets are $14, students are $10.
Alcatraz is not nearly as hard to get into today as a tourist as it must have been for prisoners to escape from back in the day, but this is definitely not a destination where you wait until the last minute to purchase tickets. The ferries traveling to Alcatraz sell out weeks in advance on a daily basis from late Spring through early Fall. And they sell out 10 days to two weeks in advances on weekends year-round. If you’re going, purchase your tickets well in advance. There are some last-minute options for purchasing Alcatraz tickets, but why take a chance? This is arguably the world’s greatest abandoned prison tour, given the history of the place and it’s desolate, surreal location.