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Prisons Promoting Tourism

As states spend an increasing amount of their budgets to expand their prison systems they increasingly seek ways to replenish impoverished state coffers. One major source of revenue is tourism, and some states are well-known for their tourist attractions -- such as Disneyworld and Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida; the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee; and the federal prison complex at Leavenworth, Kansas. Leavenworth? Yes, Leavenworth.

Once a symbol of shame hidden from outside observers, prisons are now being used as tourist draws. While some towns and cities promote local crafts or their cultural backgrounds, others emphasize their detention facilities. For almost two years a cartoon convict bedecked in black-and-white stripes has appeared on billboards and in magazine ads with the tag line, "How about doin' some `time' in Leavenworth?" Another marketing slogan proclaims, "You don't have to be indicted to be invited."

Apparently the ads are working; calls to the Leavenworth-Lansing Convention and Visitor's Bureau's 800-number increased by over 65% from 1995 to 1996, the year the bureau introduced the "doin' time" ad campaign. According to Connie Hachenberg, director of the visitor's bureau, exploiting the widely recognized prison was an obvious choice and she hopes to expand on the idea. "I'd love to see a restaurant, a Jailhouse Cafe, open up. Think of all the things they could do in that. Tin cups and tin trays and all that."

Other jurisdictions have also capitalized on prisons as a source of tourist capital. A prison museum located at the Colorado Territorial Corr. Facility in Canon City charges visitors an admittance fee. Prison memorabilia from by-gone eras are displayed and the museum sells arts and crafts produced by prisoners -- though the corrections department keeps 45% of the income from the sale of convict-made goods. The museum reportedly receives almost 50,000 visitors a year, at $5.00 per adult and $2.00 per child.

Some prisons have become impromptu tourist attractions as a result of their notoriety, including the federal super-max facility in Florence, Colorado, which draws curious on-lookers on a regular basis. And for years there has been talk of turning the infamous island prison of Alcatraz into a tourist center. The public has a fascination with prisons that, ironically, is only exceeded by their abhorrence of prisoners and condemnation of crime.

But although prisons are being promoted as a source of tourist dollars they still remain off-limits; there are no public tours of the U.S. Penitentiary, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Lansing Correctional Facility or U.S. Marshal's detention center located in Leavenworth. Connie Hachenberg admits that the visitor's bureau doesn't offer tours or other prison-related activities but defends using a prison theme to attract tourists. And she does her part to emphasize the prison connection, greeting visitors in a striped convict outfit and taking their pictures in front of a prison backdrop. Can prison theme parks be far behind? ConvictWorld? Six Flags Over Attica?

Kansas City Star , reader mail

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