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Touring Michigan’s oldest prison with a historian who lives there

May 9, 2017

In the first half of the 1800s, the city of Jackson fought hard for the right to build the state's first prison. The horrific conditions that developed at the prison from its gritty early days are well documented by Judy Gail Krasnow in her book Jacktown: History and Hard Times at Michigan's First State Prison.
 

Throughout the old prison art is found on the walls.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Krasnow gave Stateside's Lester Graham a tour of the prison. She explained how it got started and what it's like today. 

According to Krasnow, when the original prison was built, it was a wooden fort. The thinking was that forts protect people, so it would make a good prison. 

"Unfortunately they found out the hard way that that wasn't the case with prison," Krasnow said. "Because in 1840, 10 very vicious inmates escaped to become the Jackson Robber Gang."  

That gang  ran wild all over, robbing coaches and cattle, and killing people.

"So Jackson and the state decided, we had better build a brick and stone and mortar and iron prison. And they did," Krasnow said.  

According to Krasnow, one of the main motivations for the prison was to make a profit. The prisoners were paid just under 34 cents per day for their work (the average wage in that day was roughly $1.50 per day), but 28 cents of that pay went back to the state. So the prisoners were working for a little more than five cents per day.  The leadership at the prison saw this as part of their punishment and considered it to be a way to rehabilitate them.

But the conditions within the prison were horrific. The cells were 5 1/2 by 4 1/2 feet, and thanks to a lack of ventilation, the stench was almost unbearable. There were no toilets, so prisoners were given buckets that they had to keep in their cells that were only emptied once per day. The prisoners were not allowed to wear underwear, and the uniforms they wore were only washed, supposedly, twice per month, Krasnow explained.

"[In 1846], Michigan was the first state ever to abolish capital punishment," Krasnow said. "But the punishment was then life in solitary [confinement]."

Twenty prisoners received that sentence, and 15 years later, inspectors came and found them suffering from malnutrition, and infested with bugs and vermin from living in a completely dark basement with no ventilation. 

Michigan's first penitentiary was at one time the largest walled prison in the world.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Krasnow described that as the years went on, small improvements were made to the conditions, including the addition of educational programs. The year before the prison closed in 1934, an effort was made to use the arts to rehabilitate prisoners, which showed some positive results. 

Now, the prison has been renovated into a residential property where Krasnow lives in an apartment within the prison walls. 

Listen to the full interview above to hear about the physical torture the prisoners had to endure for breaking the "code of silence." You'll also hear about some of the lessons to be learned from "Jacktown," and what it's like to live in the prison today.  

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