From Exhibiting Prisoners to Exhibiting Historic Prisons

face of a prisoner

Although it displayed its prison rather than its prisoners, Eastern State Penitentiary overcame Auburn State Prison’s lead in attracting spectators. From 4000 spectators in 1839, spectators at Eastern State Penitentiary increased throughout the 1850s and reached about 10,000 in 1859. From 1862 to 1871, which includes four years of civil war that probably depressed prison tourism, the Eastern State Penitentiary averaged about 11,400 spectators per year. Spectators at Auburn Prison, in contrast, remained roughly about 7,000 from 1820 to 1864 despite New York’s growing population. In 1860, only about 5,000 spectators passed through Auburn Prison. That’s about half the number attracted in 1860 to Eastern State Penitentiary.

Public tours of prisons continued in the U.S. through the beginning of the twentieth century. The U.S., which led the world in suppressing prisoners communication, also exhibited prisoners more openly and for a longer time than did other industrialized countries. In 1903, a penal scholar declared:

Nowhere in the civilized word is admission to prisons so open and unconstrained as in most places in the United States. The reporters for the daily press are permitted to range at their will. On Sundays crowds of curious excursionists make a visit to a penitentiary a part of their holiday. Not seldom do visitors give serious offence to the convicts and disturb order and reformatory measures.^

The scholar approvingly noted that, in England, visiting a prison was not allowed for “persons who have no special qualifications for making good use of the opportunity,” and in Saxony, visitors were required to “give proof of a special scientific or official intention.”^

U.S. prison officials quickly ended public prison exhibitions early in the twentieth century. In 1904, Eastern State Penitentiary officials declared:

For various reasons, which will be apparent to almost anyone, the Board think it improper for men, women, and children to wander through the corridors of the Penitentiary, merely for motives of idle curiosity. Therefore, without good and sufficient reason, no visitors passes will be issued in the future.^

The Superintendent of Prisons in Virginia proposed in 1910 to eliminate visits by the “morbidly curious” spectator: “I feel that it is wrong to inflict further humiliation upon the prisoner by subjecting him to the gaze of this class.”^ Many U.S. prisons had been doing exactly that for over seventy years. The reasons that prison officials gave for the change in policy were hardly compelling in light of the long-established policy of exhibiting prisoners. What seems to have changed is prison officials’ desired public position. They apparently shifted from seeking publicity and spectator revenue to seeking public distance associated with administrative professionalism.

Historic prisons that no longer hold prisoners now attract many spectators. For example, in 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary ceased regular operation as a prison. It was restored as a public monument in 1994 and opened for daily tours, a haunted experience called “Terror Behind the Walls” (according to its website, “one of the largest and most successful haunted attractions in the county”), art exhibits, movie filming, and other special events. In 2004, the Eastern State Penitentiary received more than 100,000 spectators. It has subsequently expanded its exhibits to the public. Another example is Australian convict sites, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Among the Australian convict sites is Fremantle Prison. It ceased functioning as a prison in 1991. It subsequently opened as public exhibition. It currently attracts about 175,000 spectators per year.^ Auburn State Prison offers a contrasting example. Now called the Auburn Correctional Facility, it operates much like any other prison. It attracts little public interest despite its great historical importance.