Abandoned Prisons in the US You Can Visit
Published Nov 15, 2021
Inmates come and go, and apparently, so do prisons. Through the years, many facilities have gone out of use and been replaced by new ones.
There are a lot of reasons why a prison facility would be closed. Some prisons were closed for their inhumane treatment of inmates. Others were simply too old and unsafe for human habitation.
Going through the halls of these prisons can be a surreal experience. But, though they’ve become museums, you can still find some trinkets that remind you of all the lives altered inside them. The hopes, the dreams, and the lives that perished within its walls. They also give you an idea of how incarceration in the country has changed over the years.
Here are seven abandoned prisons in the US that you definitely need to visit:
1. ALCATRAZ FEDERAL PENITENTIARY
Built on an island off the coast of California, this facility is dubbed to be inescapable. Yet, in June 1962, three inmates escaped the island by sailing in a makeshift raft. Whether they safely made it to land is still unknown to this day.
During its heyday, Alcatraz was known to be the world’s most notorious prison. Well-known prisoners like Al Kapone and Mickey Cohen had once roamed its walls. It operated for 29 years, eventually closing on March 21, 1963, due to a combination of high maintenance costs and poor reputation.
2. EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
If you’re an avid fan of horror documentaries, then this prison would be familiar to you. Built in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary is famous for its solitary confinement. Inmates were kept in solitude at all times. Even when they had to leave their cells, the guard would put a cover over their heads. Because of overcrowding and reports of inhumane treatments, it was abandoned in 1971. Since then, various reports of paranormal activities inside it have also emerged. (Related: 10 Most Haunted Prisons and Jails in the US)
3. OHIO STATE REFORMATORY
Opening in 1986, the prison was closed 90 years later due to a class-action lawsuit filed by prisoners citing brutal and inhuman conditions. Most of the movie Shawshank Redemption scenes were filmed here, which made it a famous tourist destination. Like most prison museums, it holds various tourism events throughout the year.
4. OLD IDAHO PENITENTIARY
Built by inmates in 1872, this historical prison, considered one of the abandoned prisons in the US, remained operational for 101 years. Idaho was not yet a state when it was first opened. During its more than a decade of operation, it has hosted 13,000 inmates, 215 of them were women, including Lyda Southard. She is best known as Lady Bluebeard, a serial killer famous for murdering her five husbands to collect on their life insurance.
Several serious riots took place inside it in the early part of the ’70s over poor living conditions. This led to the prison’s closure in 1973. They then transferred the remaining inmates to the new Idaho State Correctional Institution. The site is now a museum, and a botanical garden flocked by tourists wanting to learn more about the state’s incarceration history.
The front facade of Old Idaho State Penitentiary, one of the abandoned prisons in the US you can visit.
5. YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON
Even though it only operated for 33 years, the Yuma Territorial Prison is one of Arizona’s most notable tourist sites. Opening in 1876 (well before Arizona became a state), it has housed up to 3,069 prisoners until 1909. Some of its most notable inmates were Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon and train robber Burt Alvord. The museum has appeared in various movies and TV shows as well as books and plays.
6. WYOMING FRONTIER PRISON
When the Wyoming Frontier Prison, one of the abandoned prisons in the US you can visit, first opened in 1901, it only had 104 cells with no running water or heating system. Considering Wyoming’s weather, inmates surely had a hard time. Like most of its contemporaries, the facility has a dungeon for erring inmates. The most prominent feature of which is the “whipping pole,” where prisoners are handcuffed and whipped with rubber hoses.
The prison also had its own share of gruesome history. It used to have a “death house” for inmates on death row. Apart from the gallows, the prison also added a gas chamber to its methods of execution. A total of nine inmates were hanged, while five others lost their lives in the gas chamber.
After more than 80 years of housing inmates, it closed in 1987 due to structural damages after a low-budget movie was filmed on location. It is now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places and receives about 15,000 visitors annually.
7. WEST VIRGINIA PENITENTIARY
An imposing stone structure built in the Gothic architectural style, West Virginia Penitentiary looks more like a castle than a prison. Equally interesting is its 119-year history of housing accused and convicted criminals.
At some point during its operation, it was listed as one of the Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities in the US. The facility has also executed 94 inmates throughout its history. Eighty-five were hanged while the rest were electrocuted. The original electric chair is still on display and included during official tours.
8. MISSOURI STATE PENITENTIARY
Missouri’s infamous maximum-security prison, characterized by Time magazine as “the bloodiest 47 acres in America,” was the state’s oldest continuously operational jail west of the Mississippi. Between 1836 and 2004, when the prison was ultimately decommissioned, there were riots, escapes, brutal attacks, and executions. In 1937, the state enacted a measure authorizing deadly gas executions. Until capital punishment detainees were relocated to a new jail, a total of 40 men and women were executed in the gas chamber here.
9. POTTAWATTAMIE SQUIRREL CAGE JAIL
Once known as Pottawattamie County Jail (a newer, still-operational facility currently stands in its place), this historic Iowa prison is one of the few remaining instances of a ‘squirrel cage’ jail — so nicknamed for its archaic revolving jail cells shaped like a turntable. The innovative design enabled a jailer to spin the three-story block with a hand crank, shifting the pie-shaped cells and occupants.
10. WYOMING TERRITORIAL PRISON
Butch Cassidy, the notorious outlaw, was one of the ‘wild west’ offenders imprisoned within the stone walls of Wyoming Territorial Prison, which started as a federal facility in 1872 and became the state penitentiary in 1890. It was dubbed ‘the big house across the river,’ even though individuals who lived there were not exactly made to feel at home due to the harsh surroundings. Striped-uniformed detainees were obliged to remain silent at all times and perform hard labor.
(Related: 10 Famous Prisons That Left a Mark in History)
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About The Author
Krizzia Paolyn is an SEO Specialist with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. It has always been her passion to share her voice, and at the same time, to encourage other people to speak up.