Chiayi Prison, which is currently being renovated, is slated to open in October as the nation’s first prison museum, where artifacts and documents will be on display offering visitors a taste of what prison life was like in the past.
Its inmates were moved to a new prison in Chiayi’s Lucao Township (鹿草) in 1994, leaving the fate of the old building undecided.
Prison employees suggested the city government turn it into a museum, but authorities, citing local opposition, planned to use the land for an international conference venue.
However, the Ministry of Justice preferred to preserve the building, so the Ministry of the Interior intervened when the local authority’s plan came up for review.
In 2002, prominent figures in the city’s cultural sector, together with former employees of the prison, moved to save the building, petitioning the city government to hold an “Old Prison’s Spring” cultural festival, a move supported by groups nationwide.
Complying with the public’s wishes, in June 2002, the city government designated the old prison as a city-level heritage site.
In May 2005, the prison was elevated to national heritage status, coming 59th in a poll held by the Council for Cultural Affairs for the nation’s top 100 historical buildings.
National Taipei University of Education associate professor Yang Mang-che (楊孟哲), a participant in the effort to save the old prison nine years ago, said the planned museum needed professional managers to revitalize the use of the buildings.
“There should be exhibitions, but more importantly, the space should also be used for the development of facilities such as restaurants, accommodation for visitors and artists’ studios,” he said.
“Many countries are deeply concerned about preserving the history and culture of their prisons,” Deputy Minister of Justice Chen Shou-huang (陳守煌) said, listing the US Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary and Japan’s Abashiri Prison Museum as examples of successful precedents.
“Taiwan is going to catch up in this area,” he said.
The Abashiri Prison Museum is a successful example of such a transformation, bringing in 50,000 tourists per year, placing it on a par with the Abashiri Drift Ice Festival as a local tourist attraction.
Built in 1890, Abashiri Prison shares the same design is as the old Chiayi prison, with cell blocks radiating outwards in a fan-shape from a central tower.
Japanese authorities went out of their way to preserve the prison’s original design, rebuilding the brick cells and mass bathing chamber accordingly.
In tandem with merchandise such as prison clothing and prison food, tourists not only learn about the prison, but can also experience being “imprisoned” for the day.
Commenting on the initial unwillingness of Chiayi residents to keep the old prison, Abashiri Prison Museum director Suzuki Masanobu said that since Hokkaido had in ancient days been colonized and made habitable by prison inmates, the residents of Abashiri had a sentimental attachment to the prison.
“Not only did they not protest, they helped out greatly in preserving the prison,” Suzuki said.
He also pointed out that many soap operas and movies have used the renovated prison building as a setting, helping to boost its profile as a tourist attraction.
Suzuki suggested keeping the original features of the Chiayi Prison and letting visitors feel like part of a living museum.