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The Iowa State Penitentiary stands like an ancient stone fortress on a bluff over the Mississippi River, ringed by castle-like guard towers and sheathed in chain link and razor wire. Built in 1839, seven years before Iowa became a state, the buff-colored compound is the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi, and as unwelcoming a place as you can imagine.
But soon, a place people have long wanted to avoid may try to become the opposite: an attraction for visitors. After Iowa’s most dangerous criminals leave next spring, some local officials hope that history buffs, ghost hunters and the plain curious will show up to replace them.
Around the country, state prisons built in the 19th and 20th centuries are closing due to rising maintenance costs, security concerns and general obsolescence. But cities eager to fill the economic gap believe they can capitalize on something that most tourist sites lack: a morbid past.
“Forts historically were built to keep people out. Now we want to swing the tide on that and let people in to see what’s gone on for so many years behind these walls,” said Iowa State Penitentiary Warden Nick Ludwick.
The closed Missouri State Penitentiary was on track to draw a record 20,000 visitors this year until mold discovered in September forced a temporary cancellation of tours, which take guests to the old gas chamber where 40 inmates were put to death. Storytelling tours exploit the history of Cellblock 7 at Michigan State Prison, where doctor Jack Kevorkian once stayed. The Ohio State Reformatory offers a nighttime, 45-minute tour that promises a “haunted prison experience.”
These attractions can’t match Alcatraz, where nearly 1.5 million visitors annually take cruises to see the famous island garrison in San Francisco Bay where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly served time. But they offer something distinctly different than the Victorian houses, old grain mills and museums that are historical sites in many tourism-hungry towns.
“There’s quite a lot of interesting activity going on with historic prisons,” said Tracy Huling, a fellow at the Open Society Foundation who is studying how communities are turning closed prisons into museums, apartments, hotels, art studios and film locations. “Done well, they can serve as an economic driver.”
With 174 years of history, the Iowa penitentiary has its share of tales to tell and artifacts to show. There was the inmate who used chloroform to kill a guard in the 1800s and the 1981 riot in which inmates took workers hostage. In 1963, the prison was the site of a federal execution that became the last for 40 years after the practice was temporarily halted. In 2005, inmates used rope to scale the walls near an unstaffed guard tower, which became the catalyst for the prison’s closing.
The prison still has the wooden canes that guards once used and photos of the gallows where dozens of inmates were hanged.
“If we could do it right, it could be a big tourism asset for Fort Madison,” said city manager Byron Smith, who envisions turning the space into a museum with ghost tours, a dog park and community center.
The sprawling prison is central to Fort Madison, a working-class town of 11,000 where some residents remember watching movies in the prison auditorium and getting their hair cut by inmates. Fort Madison was called “Pen City” because of the penitentiary and the Sheaffer Pen factory. That moniker hasn’t been used much since the factory closed in 2008.
Residents were thrilled when the state decided to build the $130 million, high-tech new prison — and keep 440 jobs — down the road. But some are wary of the state’s offer to transfer ownership of the old prison to the city, fearing it could become a money pit.
The prison would need some renovations and has shaky foundations that might require some buildings to be demolished.
Some inmates are also wary of the pending move, sad to leave a place where they know every nook and cranny. They say they will miss the clanging of the metal cell bars and the jingling of guards’ keys, when they’re replaced by sliding doors and swipe cards.
“They could turn it into a museum,” said Lloyd Bennett, 67, a convicted murder who has been confined there for 22 years. “It would also make a nice zoo. I’m serious. With all these cages.”
But for others, the closure can’t come soon enough.
“People are chomping at the bit for this thing to happen,” said Steve Bryant of the Keokuk Paranormal Society, who wants to turn the prison into a haunted hotel. “I’ve got a whole bunch of people saying they would stay there. People just like being spooked out.”
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