FORT MADISON (AP) — 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.