Prison History

Witness the sights and stories of this influential aspect of Michigan history.

Jackson owes almost 200 years’ worth of growth and success to something many people wouldn’t suspect: prisons. Early penitentiaries led to railroads — the largest stop between Chicago and Detroit — and those railroads led to an economic boom in the 19th century and beyond. See how it all started with tours and experiences that highlight our deep-rooted history.

Blazing a Trail

The evolution of the prison can be seen in several of Jackson’s historic structures. Not only would architectural cues from these evolving buildings affect our state, but our country. The first state prison in Michigan, a wooden fort located on the north side of downtown, was completed in 1839 and housed 35 inmates inside makeshift wooden walls. By 1840, 85 inmates lived inside “The Tamaracks.” When 10 escaped, terrorizing Jackson for two years, the state replaced the wood with a solid brick, mortar and iron edifice. By 1882, this site housed over 2,000 prisoners making Jackson home to the largest walled prison in the world for the first time. Today, this site is known as Jackson’s “Old Prison” or the Armory Arts Village.

As the need for an even larger facility became evident in 1920, the state legislature authorized plans for a “New Prison” and a new site was chosen 3 miles north of the “Old Prison”. Construction started in 1924 and was completed in 1934. This site became known as the State Prison of Southern Michigan and with the ability to hold over 5,700 inmates, it made Jackson the home of the largest walled prison in the world for the second time. 

The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours

Take The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours. Walk the “Old Prison” grounds within 25’ high, imposing stone walls resembling an old castle. The remaining huge building, once Michigan’s first penitentiary cellblock, is now converted into the Armory Arts Village. This is the only old prison in the world re-purposed as a residence with a focus on the arts - a unique blend with prison past. Live guides share captivating tales of crime, corruption, and reform. Three tours are offered in accordance with group size and your available time.

eNews Sign Up