Four Places to Get Behind Bars (No Mugshot Required)

Guest blogger Erin Gifford is a mother of four who shares family travel advice and ideas on her blog, Kidventurous, which was recently chosen as the "Best Family Travel Blog" by Parents magazine.

While most of us try to keep out of jail when we vacation, for some, the jail is the vacation. We’ve all heard of Alcatraz Island, but oh yes, there are more prison tours beyond this one on a tiny island off the coast of San Francisco. Best of all, neither stripes nor a mugshot are required. Take a look.


Acatraz Island: Yes, everyone knows about Alcatraz, but you can’t write about jail tours without hitting on Alcatraz. I mean, really, there’s an entire tourist industry built around this federal penitentiary that shut down in 1963. It may have operated for less than 30 years (closing due to rising costs), but yet it’s more popular than ever. Take Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33 and plan on spending two to three hours visiting the island, which interestingly, is now a part of the National Park Service.

Among the most famous inmates are Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, so pick up the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour and guide yourself through the prison at your own pace. As for the ferry, if you just want to get to Alcatraz and walk around, go during the day. Take the evening ferry to spend time circling the island with live historical narration. Alcatraz Island frequently sells out – up to a week in advance—so purchase your tickets in advance. 

Eastern State Penitentiary: Closed in 1971, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was also home to Al Capone (the guy clearly got around). Today, it’s open for tours of the cellblocks, solitary confinement cells, even Death Row. Through November, admission includes a 45-minute audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi called “The Voices of Eastern State.” If you’re really hard core, come back at Halloween for Terror Behind the Walls. Honestly, I was scared just watching the video.


If you want more than a walking tour, check out the Hands-On History interactive experiences. Try to open the heavy front gate, unlock and open the “escape proof” iron cell doors and get inside the windowless punishment cells known as “Klondike.” Kids ages 7-12 can pick up an educational booklet that includes a scavenger hunt, games and a take-home poster of, get this, “Pep, the Cat-Murdering Dog.”

Missouri State Penitentiary: Stop by the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City for revealing historical and ghost tours, which go all out to describe the strange and unusual occurrences behind the prison walls. Teens and adults can go on a “ghost hunt” with paranormal experts using “activity finding” devices. For those who really want to take it all in, sign up for the Overnight Paranormal Investigation Experience to hunt down paranormal activity all night long. No sleeping, just ghost hunting.

Looking for souvenirs? Oh yes, they have them. Stop by the nearby Convention and Visitors Bureau during regular hours or online in for replica prison keys, postcards featuring the gas chamber and even a Billy Club key chain engraved with “Missouri State Penitentiary.” Makes a perfect stocking stuffer.          

Ohio State Reformatory: I’ll admit, “Shawshank Redemption” is one of my favorite movies, so I could see myself paying a visit to the site where it was filmed in Mansfield, Ohio. Interestingly, some scenes from “Air Force One” and “Tango & Cash” were also shot at the Ohio State Reformatory, which shut down in 1990. Today, this prison attracts everyday tourists, movie buffs and paranormal investigators. Yup, just like the other prisons, this one is a hot spot for paranormal activity too.

Because the Ohio State Reformatory is more well-known, at least among Shawshank fans, there’s a wider variety of tours, including self-guided tours, photos tours, even a Shawshank Trail tour where you can explore sites where the movie was filmed and hear behind-the-scenes stories. There are insanely popular ghost hunts of course (sold out through November) and yes, before you ask, you can have your wedding reception, family reunion or company picnic at the Ohio State Reformatory.

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