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,’” Springer said. “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 the US 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 Web site 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.
The Missouri penitentiary had more than 19,000 visitors last year, up 10 percent from the previous year. Some other prisons in the US 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.
At Alcatraz — the most famous prison open for tours — the number of visitors to the island 2.4km offshore from San Francisco are capped at between 1.4 million and 1.5 million annually. Alcatraz has offered tours since 1973 — 11 years longer than the 1934-1963 period when it was an active prison.
Prison tours cater to travelers interested in seeing the unusual, Old Idaho Penitentiary visitor services coordinator Amber Beierle said.
“It’s a place most of us would never in our lifetime see from personal experience,” she said.
Some tours at the Missouri prison are given by former guards, who waste no time in calling attention to the brutal history of the place.
“Welcome to the bloodiest 47 acres in North America,” said tour guide and former guard Bill Green, 65, his long gray hair flowing out from under a scruffy ball cap. “Men died within these walls by the hundreds — and not the low hundreds.”
Time magazine in the mid-1960s dubbed the prison the “bloodiest 47 acres” because of the number of inmates who killed or assaulted each other.
The prison housed the state’s worst offenders in crowded conditions. More than 5,000 inmates were crammed into the facility in the early 1930s, Green said. In 1954, prisoners rioted, burning down several buildings, killing four inmates and injuring guards and many other inmates.
Famous inmates at the Missouri penitentiary included gangster Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston — who learned to box while incarcerated — and James Earl Ray, who escaped in a bakery truck in 1967 and the following year assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Visitors can tour the oldest standing prison cell block, built in 1868. A stop along the way is “the dungeon” — where inmates who broke rules were locked up in pitch dark, dirty conditions.
On Green’s tour, his assistant Aloha Gerbes offers visitors a sobering directive: “Follow Bill. He will put you in one of the cells now.”
The grounds of the prison include a former gas chamber, housed in a small limestone structure built by inmates in the early 1930s. Thirty-eight men and one woman were put to death there before the state changed its execution method in 1989 to lethal injection.
In the gas chamber, capital offenders suffered a “terrible death” by cyanide gas, Green said.
“You don’t just fall asleep,” he told the tour group. “The cyanide rips out your sinuses, it tears out your esophagus.”
“You can see how some people went in there for a very short time and still came out hardened,” retired minister Jim Rhiver said after touring the prison. “It was a terrible place to be.”