WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO| CELL BLOCK 7
Most Michiganders know that Jackson is home to a renowned landmark: The State Prison of Southern Michigan. Incarceration within the ominous walls of one of the world’s largest prisons would be dreadful, but a visit to the on-site museum can be fascinating – particularly because Cell Block 7 was an active part of the penitentiary until 2007.
“Cell Block 7 offers visitors the opportunity to learn about prisons in a recently active cell block. It is a thought-provoking destination that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” said Brad Collins, museum manager. “The prison system has affected a large number of people – particularly in Jackson – throughout the years. Many of our visitors have some sort of connection to the prisons, which motivates them to visit. They have worked or lived in the prisons, known someone who has, or they have been affected in some other way,” he added.
“The museum can be a powerful place to visit as you reflect on all that has happened here over the years and what is still going on in the active prisons around the museum,” he stated.
The museum gives access to a place that is largely unknown. Many know it is there but have little or no understanding of it. Unless you have lived or worked on the inside, most never expect the opportunity to see inside a cell block. The museum reveals what has been a mystery to most of the community for its entire existence, according to Collins.
The first inmate entered Michigan’s original penal institution in 1839. When this first prison became too small to house its increasing population, a new modern penitentiary was planned. Completed in 1934, the State Prison of Southern Michigan became the largest walled prison in the world, with over 5,700 cells.
The prison’s successful growth was due in part to the interest of long-time Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams in prison reform. He instituted a reception-diagnostic center at the State Prison to segregate mentally unstable inmates from other prisoners. During the 1950s, Michigan’s incarceration centers became models of economy, efficiency, and progressive penal rehabilitation techniques.
What draws people from outside of Jackson to the museum? The ability to see inside one of Michigan’s most notorious prisons is a unique opportunity. While more prison museums are popping up around the country, the closest is three hours away in Ohio. Cell Block 7 is unique in that it is the only prison museum in the country that is currently on active prison grounds. The museum averages 9,000 annual visitors for its self-guided tours.
People are most surprised by the sheer size of the cell block (over 25,000 square feet) and the size of the prison itself, with over 57 acres of land inside the walls. People also comment routinely that every kid or school class should visit the museum to show them what happens to people who break the law.
“Our visitors can see for themselves how people may have lived or worked in what was for many years one of the biggest and most dangerous prisons in the country,” Collins stated.
“The museum also gives people a place to meet various needs. We have had former inmates visit to get some closure or to show their families and friends where they spent some time, or to show the younger ones where you don’t want to end up. Former and current Department of Corrections employees use it as a way to show others what some of the prisons they have worked in are like.”
Statistically, 1,500 – 1,600 Michigan Department of Corrections staff are employed in the four prison facilities currently operating in Jackson: the minimum-security Parnall Correctional Facility; the Cotton Correctional Facility, where prisoners can finish their general education; the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center; and the Cooper Street Correctional Facility. Between 900 and 1,000 corrections officers work with 5,000 – 6,000 inmates, based on the Department’s 2017 statistical report.
The Cell Block 7 museum staff is regularly available to answer questions about the museum or the prison system. Winter hours (November 1 – February 28) are Friday – Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Appointments are not necessary. No inmates reside here.
Cell Block 7
3455 Cooper St
Jackson, MI 49201
(517) 745.6813 l CellBlock7.org