Jackson tourism site promotes jailhouse tours — are they profiting off prisons?

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Screenshot of ExperienceJackson.com's landing page.
  • Screenshot of ExperienceJackson.com's landing page.
ExperienceJackson.com, a tourism website for Jackson, MI, gets one thing right.

It reads in part: "Jackson owes almost 200 years’ worth of growth and success to something many people wouldn’t suspect: prisons."

The city is known for being home to Michigan State Prison, AKA Jackson State Prison — which was Michigan's first penitentiary when it opened in 1839 — and little else.

The sleepy town has been home to several industries since it was founded in 1829 — but none have stuck quite like the prison. The city has produced everything from mopeds to corsets to coney dogs to car parts, but it's nickname remains "Prison City."

So, it makes sense that the town, which has been experiencing population decline since the '60s according to data from the U.S. Decennial Census, would try to capitalize on what it refers to as a "deep-rooted history."

An MLive report asserts that prisons are Michigan's biggest growing industry — a statement sort of corroborated by Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"Prisons were a real growth industry for a while," she told Jack Lessenberry in July.

In the 1970s, the state was home to about 8,000 prisons, and by the early 2000s, that number soared to 50,000 — to give you an idea of Michigan's prison industry boom.

Nowadays the number hovers around 40,000, thanks to modified sentencing policies.

Washington ascended to her position following the Aramark scandal, and seems to have the Lessenberry seal of approval. She's against privatizing prisons and is reportedly doing work to help inmates re-assimilate into society following their release as well as reduce the rate of return inmate.

As far as Jackson's prison tour promotion, the site does little to show the human (and often dehumanizing) side of prison, but rather seems to exault itself as the lockup of "hardened criminals" — many of whom spent time in prison for merely possessing illegal drugs.

For $15 a ticket, attendees can stroll through Cell Block 7, a portion of the current complex that's been converted into a museum. In a way that seems to glorify the prison narrative, Cell Block 7's site says guests can "inhabit the same cells, walk the same corridors, and pass by the same gun towers as some of the most hardened criminals in Michigan's history."

Additionally, guests can tour the original Jackson Historic Prison, a building with a 25-foot stone wall that once served as Michigan's only cellblock. That building has since been converted into the Armory Arts Village, a residence with a focus on the arts. Here, guests can take docent-guided tours where leaders tell "captivating tales of crime, corruption, and reform."

While landing on a wide angle, color-corrected photo of a sparkling clean prison might seem jarring to those who visit a tourism website, one finds it hard to fault Jackson for capitalizing on Michigan's prison industrial complex — the small town doesn't have much else going on.


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