Michigan'S First State Prison

How Prison History Shaped Jackson, Michigan and the World

The history of Michigan’s First State Prison is closely tied to Jackson’s history. With much chagrin, Jacksonians tell the story that when offered the choice between a prison and a university, we chose the prison. Putting the decision into context of 1838 and the Industrial Revolution, a prison provided something much more valuable, cheap labor in our factories. Prison labor was first used for building wagon wheels, later for the locomotive industry and then the automotive industry. This decision actually made Jackson one of the wealthiest industrial towns in the nation at the time.

Michigan's First State Prison
Michigan’s First State Prison | Old Prison Wall | Photo Courtesy of Experience Jackson

The business prison labor brought to Jackson brought the railroads, making Jackson the largest stop on the train from Detroit to Chicago. Michigan Central Railroad – Jackson Depot still operates along the Amtrak Wolverine line making it the oldest continually operating passenger train station in the nation.

Both the old prison, Michigan’s First State Prison (1838-1934) now Armory Arts Village, and the new prison, Southern Michigan Correctional Facility (1934-2007), were the largest walled prison in the world in their heyday. The prisons became a mini city producing much of what it needed onsite including prison farms and handicrafts.

Michigan Central Railroad Jackson Depot
Michigan Central Railroad Jackson Depot, the oldest continually operating train station in the nation | Photo Courtesy of Experience Jackson

But the prison is not just an important part of Jackson’s history: it’s an important part of Michigan history too. From Kwame to Kevorkian to the infamous Purple Gang, Michigan’s most notorious criminals have passed through those walls. Famous inmate stories include a conspiracy involving Jackson’s Purple Gang Prisoners in the murder of a State Senator , and a famous daring helicopter escape.

But it’s not only important to Michigan history, it’s important to American history. As the United States remains the number one prison population in the world, we once again begin the discussion on prison reform. The conversation was not so different about 130 years ago. The only difference being in the 1880’s, reformers from Europe looked to this new nation as a model for building and improving their own prison systems. For example in Jackson, Chaplain Albert M. Ewert taught prisoners painting and poetry and Warden H. F. Hatch placed an emphasis on education and rehabilitation long before prisoner reentry programs were officially developed.

The appeal of a good prison story is nothing new. Whether it’s Shawshank Redemption or Orange is the New Black stories of crime and redemption have always made for great movies and TV shows. The Jackson Riot of 1952 with 2,600 inmates doing $2.5 million worth of damage over five days  inspired the 1954 movie Riot in Cell Block 11.

This isn’t the only film with Jackson Prison ties. In 2009, the guests of the prison were Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, and Robert DeNiro. After 2007 when the heart of the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility was finally closed, several film crews used the old cell blocks as filming locations including Stone, Conviction (starring Hilary Swank), and Street Boss.

There are two exciting opportunities to experience these prison stories and more:

The Original Historic Prison Tours

The Original Historic Prison Tours takes you through Michigan’s First State Prison, now Armory Arts Village, and covers Jackson’s prison history from 1839 through present-day. Judy Gail Krasnow, Owner and Operator shares her favorite tale.

“Our Original Historic Prison Tour is filled with amazing stories such as the clever use of the huge cockroaches. Inmates tied a smuggled cigar on the insect’s back. The first inmate lifted the bug and took his puff. Then, putting the bug down, he held the string. The insect scurried, but could only reach the next cell. There the next inmate enjoyed his puff and so-on down the row until one unlucky inmate just got the “roach”.”

The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours
The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours | Photo Courtesy of Experience Jackson

Cell Block 7 Prison Museum

The only prison exhibit within the walls of an operating penitentiary, Cell Block 7 is not just a replica; it’s a real prison, where thousands of convicts have done hard time. You’ll inhabit the same cells, walk the same corridors, pass by the same gun towers as some of the most hardened criminals in Michigan’s history. The difference is, when you’re ready, you can just walk out the door.

Cell Block 7 Prison Museum
Cell Block 7 Prison Museum | Photo Courtesy of Experience Jackson