Tourism

Terrible attraction of prison tourism finally challenged – Mother Jones

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This article was published in collaboration with Marshall Project, non-profit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Subscribe to their newsletters and follow them on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Eastern State Penitentiary, The former prison-turned-museum in Philadelphia attracted visitors every Halloween with an event called “The Terror Behind the Walls.” The haunted house, with evil doctors, a jailbreak, and zombie prisoners jumping out to scare visitors, was one of the museum’s most lucrative fundraising events. But since last year, the museum has decided to forego blood and focus on educational activities. The event now features more optical illusions, eerie soundtracks and live performances celebrating the museum’s mission to highlight issues of incarceration.

Museum curators have debated the appropriateness of a haunted house for years. Sean Kelly, Eastern State’s senior vice president and director of translation, said he was uncomfortable with the use of prison scenes in a haunted house. “I’m amazed at how many of us can be about these sites. The whole subject of imprisonment is not as funny as it was 10 years ago in America, but there is still a layer of people who find it funny,” he said. But we don’t find it funny.

Prison tourism often relies heavily on the creepy, the macabre and the lewd to attract visitors for a playful day of cell-diving and selfies in striped jumpsuits. But an entire industry built primarily on entertainment at the expense of the dignity of prisoners is fighting a growing movement for criminal justice reform, and businesses are being challenged by questions of exploitation and voyeurism.

The “Horror Beyond the Walls” haunted house in Eastern State Penitentiary.

The “Horror Beyond the Walls” haunted house in Eastern State Penitentiary.

Some prison museums are not so much a scientific history as a grotesque spectacle. At a West Virginia prison, visitors can sit in a non-existent electric chair and play “Escape the Pen,” an escape-the-scenes game where players have a one-hour “repair” granted by the governor to avoid death. The correctional facility’s TripAdvisor page has pictures of smiling children sitting in the electric chair. (Tom Stiles, director of the tour, said the West Virginia Prison tour “doesn’t try to disrespect the prisoner or their life. It doesn’t try to disrespect the institution itself. We tell historical facts.”) The Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City offers visitors to take pictures in the institution’s old gas chamber, in which 40 prisoners were executed, more than half of whom were black. The facility offers an eight-hour haunted night tour, participants are asked if they can survive the night on…

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