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Today we are relatively accustomed to the idea of old, closed-down prisons being destinations for curious tourists; think Alcatraz Island and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. But the idea of prisons as tourist attractions has been around since the 19th century – though not for the same reasons.

Prisons built in Michigan in the 19th and early 20th centuries were constructed to reflect the latest trends in architecture, with functionality that corresponded to society’s attitudes towards criminal justice. These buildings, often built by those they imprisoned, were meant to be beautiful and scenic, presenting an exterior appearance of decorum and civility.

Illustration of a tall building with spires and a red roof, surrounded by trees.
Postcard featuring the exterior of the Ionia Reformatory. [Archives of Michigan]

Evidence that these state prisons were treated as tourist attractions can be seen in the form of postcards circulated in the first half of the 20th century. These postcards, often saturated with color, give the viewer glimpses of prison buildings, the grounds and gardens, and even cell blocks and dining halls. It is clear from the postcards that these prisons were meant to be viewed as a source of pride for the local region, and Michigan as a whole.

An example of this phenomenon is Jackson State Prison. After undergoing construction work in the 1920s, Jackson State Prison, later renamed the State Prison of Southern Michigan, became the largest walled prison in the world. Postcards from the era capitalize on this idea, framing the prison as a world-class facility located in the heart of Michigan.

Bird's eye view illustration showing Jackson Prison and it's 5-sided wall, amidst vast fields of green.
Postcard highlighting the famous wall surrounding Jackson Prison. [Archives of Michigan]

Marquette Branch Prison, which opened in 1889, was also a popular destination for tourists. Postcards from the 20th century showcase the Romanesque architecture of the penitentiary and the stunning flower gardens found throughout the prison grounds.

Illustrated postcard showing lush terraced gardens with colorful flowers leading up to a stone building at the top of a hill.
Postcard showcasing the tiered gardens that were once on the grounds of Marquette Prison.[Archives of Michigan]

A commonality of the prison postcard genre is the absence of inmates in the images. There are usually no incarcerated people shown on the grounds, in the dining halls or in the cell blocks – if they are shown, they are neat and orderly. The purpose of these postcards was not to present realistic glimpses of prison life. Rather, they were meant to cultivate an image of the prison system as calm and orderly.

The postcards intended to instill public confidence in Michigan prisons. The threat of societal chaos that imprisoned people evoked was replaced with an image of captivating cleanliness and beauty. The complete absence of inmates implied the success of these facilities in correcting criminal behavior. However, these idyllic images completely masked the realities that incarcerated individuals experienced within the walls of these institutions.

Illustration of an dining room at Jackson Prison with rows of narrow tables, some of which have rows of men in blue suits sitting at them.
In this postcard's image, a dining room at Jackson State Prison appears pristine. The inmates that are shown are sitting calmly in neat, ordered rows. [Archives of Michigan]

Explore historic postcards at the Archives of Michigan

The Archives of Michigan’s General Photograph Collection houses postcards and photographs that span the history of Michigan’s state prisons and more.

States of Incarceration

Learn more about the history of incarceration in the traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration

Many fascinating stories like this one were featured in our special exhibit, States of Incarceration, from September 2018 - May 2019. This national traveling exhibit explores the history and impact of mass incarceration nationwide. During its run at the Michigan History Museum, it included stories throughout to reflect specifically on Michigan’s place in the past and future of mass incarceration.

Purple block with four white bars. Text overlaid on white bars reads "States of Incarceration"