Iron-cage confinement cells, gas chambers and gallows, and prisoners forced to build the facilities imprisoning them — these are the vestiges of the cruelest period in America’s penal history. And they’re open for public tours. These now decommissioned prisons, often housed inside architecturally significant — even beautiful — buildings, saw some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Some say these prisoners still haven’t left the building, with disembodied whispers and shadows lurking in their cells.
Most of you have heard of Alcatraz, the island prison in San Francisco Bay, and it’s one of the top tourist destinations. Whether you’re interested in a piece of America’s history or want to chase down some ghosts, these 10 abandoned prisons that are open for tours make perfect destinations for the curious traveler.
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA (1934-1963)
Alcatraz — ”the Rock” — is possibly the most famous federal penitentiary. Originally built as a military base in the 1850s, it became a prison in 1934. Now a museum operated by the National Park Service, Alcatraz is a designated National Historic Landmark. Among the famous “residents” at Alcatraz was Al Capone, the Chicago mob leader, who lived well on the Rock, with a carpeted cell and a radio. His family lived in a hotel nearby and it is said Capone had many visitors every day.
Alcatraz is such a popular tourist destination that reservations are recommended for all the tours. The ferry and day tour costs $39.90 per adult, and the Park Service suggests planning to spend three hours touring the prison and surrounding area, including the recreation yard. The Cellhouse Tour has an audio component so visitors can go at their own pace. The night tour costs $47.30 and often sells out. Another tour option is “Alcatraz Behind the Scenes,” which is limited to 20 people and costs $92.30. This two-hour tour is conducted by a National Park Service ranger, requires lots of steep climbs, and is limited to people over age 12.
Ohio State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH (1886-1990)
The castle-like buildings and leafy, manicured grounds of this Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne-style prison are simply stunning — a stark contrast to the decrepit and inhumane facilities inside. At six stories high, the cold and cavernous East Cell Block is the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world. Ultimately it was the prisoners themselves who forced the prison to close, by suing the state of Ohio for housing them in overcrowded and unlivable conditions. The Ohio State Reformatory was the setting for the movie Shawshank Redemption and its tours capitalize on both its Hollywood history and reputed hotbed of paranormal activity, with special events and numerous niche tours.
Guided tours start at $35 and are approximately 1.5 hours.
Old Idaho Penitentiary, Boise, ID (1872-1973)
Located on the outskirts of Boise where the high plains turn into foothills, the Old Idaho Penitentiary almost looks quaint, with its sandstone facade, turrets, and landscaped grounds. But on the inside, it’s decrepit, with towers of nearly lightproof steel lattice cells, honey pots for toilets, and the rose garden? It actually used to be an execution site. Among its former prisoners are an 11-year-old boy who murdered his mother, and Lynda Southard, a.k.a. Idaho’s Lady Bluebeard, who was convicted of poisoning four different husbands. The prison was closed in 1973 after its second mass riot in which prisoners set fire to several buildings.
Regular guided tours are $8. There are also special tours, like the cemetery tour, and nighttime paranormal investigations.
Squirrel Cage Jail, Council Bluffs, IA (1885-1969)
This curious three-story rotary jail operated like a giant “Lazy Susan,” by which the jailer could turn a hand crank and bring the prisoners’ cells to him. Hyped as a more cost effective — more cells could fit into this cylindrical shape — and secure — it allowed a singular jailer to more easily see what the prisoners were doing at any time — design, it was not exactly safe. Body parts could get easily caught as the 90,000-pound structure rotated, and the mechanism was prone to malfunctions. When the device broke down in 1960 and they were unable to retrieve the body of a prisoner who had died of natural causes, the rotary feature was disabled.
Museum admission is $7 and tickets to paranormal events can be purchased through the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County.
Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, MO (1836-2004)
This imposing four-story limestone Gothic-style penitentiary overlooking the Missouri River was known as America’s deadliest prison, due to the sheer number of violent assaults committed here. In 1954, 2,500 prisoners were involved in a two-day riot with multiple buildings set ablaze; in the end, four prisoners were killed and over 60 injured, many after being fired upon with machine guns by prison guards. Notable prisoners at Missouri State Penitentiary include Emma Goldman, who was serving one of numerous sentences for crimes such as birth control advocacy and opposing World War I, and Charles “Sonny” Liston, who won the World Heavyweight Championship title after his release.
Guided paranormal, history, and photography tours are anywhere from 2-8 hours and start at $25.
Wyoming Territorial Prison, Laramie, WY (1872-1903)
Located at the end of the so-called “Outlaw Trail,” Butch Cassidy once had a stay at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, where every aspect of incarcerated life was about discipline and hard labor. Upon arrival at the sandstone and wood fort, prisoners' heads were shaved to encourage assimilation. According to park staff, the prisoners at the time were actually well-fed, because the prison was a workhouse, and well-fed prisoners produced more work. Punishment for bad behavior included forcing prisoners to wear a ball-and-chain, shackling them to their cell door, spraying them with a waterhose, or taking them to an actual whipping post.
Guided tours are provided during the summer months on scheduled days and admission is $9 for adults.
Fort Delaware, Delaware City, DE (1861-1866)
This pentagonal fort in the middle of the Delaware River was a Union prison camp during the Civil War. Situated on the marshy and difficult-to-escape Pea Patch Island, at one point there were more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers imprisoned here. During its brief operation, over 2,500 prisoners died at Fort Delaware, mostly from malnutrition and disease. Some desperate prisoners even resorted to eating rats, which were, er, plentiful, with one hired ratcatcher claiming to have caught 16,000 in one day at the fort. Fans of Ghost Hunters will recognize the location, and you may find your own paranormal experience while wandering the underground tunnels.
General tours start at $12 for adults, and special tours — including the longer ghost-hunting tours — range from $50-110.
West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, WV (1866-1995)
While in operation, the Gothic and foreboding West Virginia Penitentiary was often cited as one of America’s most violent prisons. Today, it often makes “most haunted” lists and has been featured on several TV shows for its paranormal activity. Over the years, 94 prisoners were executed here, and until 1931, these executions were open to the public. That changed after one particularly gruesome hanging during which the trapdoor opened and the prisoner was instantly decapitated. The prison was closed in 1995 after the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that conditions present — 5-by-7-foot cells, subzero temperatures, and raw sewage — were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.
General tours are 1.5 hours and $14, while specialty tours, like ghost hunting and photography, run anywhere from 45 minutes to six hours and range in price from $20-100.
Yuma Territorial Prison, Yuma, AZ (1876-1909)
Built into and on top of stone cliffs abutting the Colorado River, the Yuma Territorial Prison looks like it was built in another age. Former notorious prisoners include several polygamists and Pearl Heart, who with her partner was the last person convicted of robbing a stagecoach. While in prison, Heart became quite the media darling and upon her release, pursued an acting career. One of the most feared punishments at Yuma was time in the “dark cell,” where prisoners were bound with an iron chain inside a cage located inside a small room carved deep into the hillside.
In addition to self-guided tours and interactive exhibits, the park hosts interesting events, like the “Gathering of the Gunfighters” and “Prison Run.”
Prison and museum admission is $8 for adults.
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA (1829-1970)
The imposing 30-foot high Gothic-style granite walls of Eastern State Penitentiary surround an 11-acre complex built to inspire penitence in its prisoners (hence the name). This was America’s first penitentiary, and the architect’s design — largely based on the cruel and misguided theory that prisoners should be kept in extremely isolating conditions – would become the model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. Part of the massive complex remains in its abandoned state, with crumbling stone cells, rusted catwalks, and reports of strange whispers and shadowy figures. There are also dialogue-inspiring exhibitions, artist installations, a summer beer garden, and recreated cells — such as Al Capone’s predictably decked out habitat.
Guided and self-guided daytime tours — including an audio component narrated by Steve Buscemi — are $17 for adults, while twilight tours start at $19, depending on the date.
These abandoned prisons are destinations within themselves, of course, but they’re also perfect additions to other itineraries, like road trips to quirky hotels, weekend getaways, and spring break camping trips.
Eastern State Penitentiary, for instance, is located in downtown Philadelphia, which is full of historic and trendy accommodations. And with the best hotel credit cards, you can earn rewards while you travel. If you happen to be road tripping it to Joshua Tree this spring break, Yuma, Arizona, is only 2.5 hours away.
Finally, before you travel, make sure you’re using one of the best travel credit cards, so that you can earn points on air travel, hotels, and car rentals.