As long as the door swings both ways, visiting an historic prison can be an arresting experience. From haunted-looking Gothic castles to prisons that bear bitter testimony to man’s inhumanity to man, these five prison museums tell stories that deserve to be heard – during the Halloween season and beyond.
Eastern State Penitentiary – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Wander down Fairmount Avenue, just minutes from downtown Philly, past pubs and eateries until you get to the the jaw-dropping sight of Eastern State Penitentiary, 11 acres of crumbling cell blocks and foreboding guard towers. Opened in 1829 as the world’s first and most famous penitentiary, Eastern State was an all-solitary confinement institution.
Designed by John Haviland, and considered quite enlightened at the time, some 300 prisons around the world copied its layout of 8-by-12-foot cells radiating out of a central rotunda. Once home to notorious criminals, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone, Eastern State closed in 1971 and was almost razed, save for preservationists’ cries.
It opened for tours in 1994. “Terror Behind the Walls” serves as the historic sites’ annual fundraiser, with tours of four haunted houses, immersive interactive performances, themed bars and an audio guide narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. The place ranges from grim to terrifying – leave tots seven and under at home.
Angola Museum – St. Francisville, Louisiana
You’ve likely heard of the Angola Rodeo, even if you haven’t been to the inmate-fueled event at Louisiana’s most infamous prison. Even if the rodeo isn’t your cup of tea, the next time you’re anywhere near St. Francisville, 130-some miles northwest of New Orleans, make time to stop into the Angola Museum.
Established by former warden Burl Cain in 1998, the museum is well worth a visit. Cain is the man credited for reducing violent incidents by 73 percent in the place once known as “The Bloodiest Prison in the South,” and judging from the contents of this creepy place, he really had his work cut out for him.
Located just outside the gates, the museum features everything from terrifying homemade weapons taken from inmates over the years to a replica of an electric chair – in use in Louisiana until 1991. The museum shop is the place to buy Guts and Glory hot sauce, made from Angola-grown peppers, and T-shirts that say, “Angola: A Gated Community.”
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – Petros, Tennessee
A brick-and-mortar testimony to the exploitation of prisoners, Brushy Mountain State Pen opened in 1896, providing free labor to the Tennessee Coal Mine in Anderson County. This dark chapter in the Tennessee coal mining industry set the stage for a bloody labor battle that turned Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary from a jail to a state coal mine, mined by prisoners who were literally worked to death in overcrowded conditions akin to a Siberian gulag.
Mining remained the sole mission of the prison until 1969 when it was reclassified as a maximum security prison. Brushy closed its doors in 2009.
Tours are self-guided, with former prison guards and inmates on hand to answer questions. There are more than 30 stops along the tour, as well as a map for traversing the prison grounds. The castle-like prison, where hardened criminals including James Earl Ray were confined, offers the Warden’s Table restaurant, an onsite distillery (End of the Line Moonshine) and the chance to take self-guided or private tours – private is really the way to go.
There’s even a campground on site, a location that might lead to troubled slumber for the faint of heart.
Alcatraz – San Francisco, California
This fortress in San Francisco Bay – called The Rock – housed Al Capone and a slew of dangerous criminals. Although there were more than a dozen escape attempts, none succeeded, all foiled by the bay’s rough waters and resident sharks.
Now, Alcatraz is San Francisco’s most popular attraction and part of one of the most visited national parks in the country. Offering day tours, behind-the-scenes tours and night visits, explore the windswept island accompanied by the award-winning “Doing Time: Cellhouse” audio tour, which you can download on your smartphone.
New attractions include access to the New Industries Building, with its exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the influential Occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of All Tribes.
Alcatraz East – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Located in the former Tennessee State Prison, which opened in 1898 just outside of Nashville, this museum is just one of Pigeon Forge’s many well-packaged family-geared attractions. This crime museum includes artifacts from Alcatraz, but isn’t really connected to the original prison.
Five galleries look at crime fighting, crime scene investigation (from DNA to blood splatter and beyond), history of American crime, punishment and pop culture. Billed as “a unique journey into the history of American crime,” Alcatraz East is “so much fun it’s a crime!”
Perfect for true crime fans, there are exhibits about CSI forensics and an infamous getaway cars exhibit that includes the Bronco from the O.J. Simpson chase. Although kids are welcome, that Ted Bundy exhibit might be quite a conversation starter.
Buy tickets in advance online or with a credit card – like many businesses trying to streamline during the pandemic, there is no cash accepted.