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Today, curious tourists want to explore old, closed-down prisons. These destinations, like Alcatraz Island and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, are very popular. But people thought of prisons as tourist attractions ever since the 19th century – though not for the same reasons.

The State of Mchigan built prisons in the 19th and early 20th centuries to reflect the latest trends in architecture. Functionality of these prisons corresponded to society’s attitudes towards criminal justice. Architects designed these buildings to be beautiful and scenic. The prison’s beauty presented an exterior appearance of decorum and civility.

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This postcard features the Michigan Reformatory at Ionia, Michigan.

Illustration of a tall building with spires and a red roof, surrounded by trees.

Postcard of the Ionia Reformatory. (Archives of Michigan, RG 2018-82)

Postcards as Evidence

Postcards circulated in the first half of the 20th century provide evidence that these state prisons were treated as tourist attractions. These postcards, often saturated with color, give the viewer glimpses of prison buildings, the grounds and gardens, and even cell blocks and dining halls. The postcards demonstrate the prisons as a source of pride for the local region, and Michigan as a whole.

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You can see an example of this phenomenon in the postcards of Jackson State Prison. After undergoing construction work in the 1920s, Jackson State Prison (later renamed the State Prison of Southern Michigan) became the largest walled prison in the world. Postcards from the era capitalize on this idea. Thier images frame the prison as a world-class facility located in the heart of Michigan.

Bird's eye view illustration showing Jackson Prison and it's 5-sided wall, amidst vast fields of green.

Postcard showing exterior of Jackson State Prison, circa 1920s. (Archives of Michigan, 2018-82)

Look Closer

Marquette Branch Prison, which opened in 1889, was also a popular destination for tourists. Postcards from the 20th century showcase the Romanesque architecture of the penitentiary and the stunning flower gardens found throughout the prison grounds.

Illustrated postcard showing lush terraced gardens with colorful flowers leading up to a stone building at the top of a hill.

Postcard of the gardens at the Marquette Branch Prison, circa 1920s. (Archives of Michigan, 2018-82)

Orderly Beauty

Inmates were largely absence in the prison postcard genre. Typically, incarcerated people were not shown on the grounds, in the dining halls or in the cell blocks of these postcards. If they are shown, they are neat and orderly. Therefore, the purpose of the postcards was not to present realistic glimpses of prison life. Rather, they were meant to cultivate an image of the prison system as calm and orderly.

The postcards intended to instill public confidence in Michigan prisons. The threat of societal chaos that imprisoned people evoked was replaced with an image of captivating cleanliness and beauty. The complete absence of inmates implied the success of these facilities in correcting criminal behavior. However, these idyllic images completely masked the realities that incarcerated individuals experienced within the walls of these institutions.

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Examine how orderly and calm the dining room at Jackson State Prison appears to be in the postcard image. Not one person out of line. Not one person disorderly. This postcard illustrates complete control of prisoners at Jackson State Prison.

Illustration of an dining room at Jackson Prison with rows of narrow tables, some of which have rows of men in blue suits sitting at them.

Postcard of Jackson State Prison's dining room, circa 1920. (Archives of Michigan, 2018-82)

Reserach Postcards

at the Archives of Michigan

The Archives of Michigan’s General Photograph Collection houses postcards and photographs that span the history of Michigan’s state prisons and more.

Adult woman and two young girls smile and laugh while paging through historic documents laid out on a wood table.

States of Incarceration

Learn more about the history of incarceration in the traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration

Many fascinating stories like this one were featured in our special exhibit, States of Incarceration, from September 2018 - May 2019. This national traveling exhibit explores the history and impact of mass incarceration nationwide. During its run at the Michigan History Museum, it included stories throughout to reflect specifically on Michigan’s place in the past and future of mass incarceration.

Purple block with four white bars. Text overlaid on white bars reads "States of Incarceration"

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