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Jackson Prison Museum: a most unusual experience

This article is actually an extension of the last at this site, which dealt with the Ella Sharp Museum (see the article at There is another museum in Jackson which should be visited by anyone with even a passing interest in the American criminal justice system. This is the Jackson Prison Museum, which is embedded within the still functional Jackson State Prison. Actually, it is part of the Ella Sharp Museum nearby. It is housed in a closed part of the large correctional facility, but is unlike most jail museums in that it is part of a much larger complex, not a local sheriff's lockup, as is the case with so many of this type.

The nature of a large prison

Generally, American prisons have fallen into two broad categories. The first type, found primarily in New England, has stressed reform, humane treatment and progressive ideas about rehabilitation. This goes back to the colonial days, when the populace was more homogeneous and perhaps easier to diagnose and control. The second type, found from Sing Sing to San Quentin, has emphasized maximum security, overcrowding and punishment as a deterrent to crime. Some reformers, like the Enlightenment writer Beccaria, have urged humane treatment for those in confinement. Jackson tends to follow the typical American model plan with its high fences, towers and rolls of formidable barbed wire to discourage escapees.

The prison museum project

A joint venture between Ella Sharp and the Michigan Department of Corrections, the museum has been in planning since 2007. It occupies the now closed Cell Block 7, and is also known as the Armory Arts Complex. It comprises only a small part of this huge installation, which grew to become the largest walled facility of its kind in America and the world! Distinguished "guests" have included members of Detroit's notorious Purple Gang of the 1920's and 1930's as well as assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Tours are available that start at the Michigan Theatre downtown and feature interactive lectures, film clips and archival photographs, among other memorabilia. For an altogether different museum experience that provides insight into a world few of us will ever see, a visit here is to be recommended.

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