What is it with our fascination with prisons? From shows like “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” and “Beyond Scared Straight” to entire museums like The Clink Prison Museum in London, there are all kinds of attractions and media dedicated to humanity’s fascination with incarceration.
Colorado is no different. Just southwest of Colorado Springs in Cañon City, we have our own museum dedicated to prison life: the Museum of Colorado Prisons. Formerly the Colorado Women’s Prison, today the facility serves as a peek inside the life of inmates, and it’s just east of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, an operating medium-security prison and the oldest prison in the Colorado Department of Corrections system.
The building, which started housing prisoners in 1871, is complete with a stone wall and armed towers. The prison was turned into a museum in 1988 by a group of Fremont County residents. Since then, more than 200,000 visitors have wandered in to learn of the state’s history of prisons through the years and the infamous criminals they housed. Each cell on this self-guided (and audio) tour includes a snapshot of the states’ penal system, both men’s and women’s, though it’s housed in a former women’s prison. Several of the cells portray how different accommodations were for men and women in the 1930s. The women could have curtains and bedspreads while the men’s cells were void of such homey comforts. Other cells exhibit how modern cells look for men and women.
In another part of the museum, visitors can view a solitary confinement cell, the dining area, the laundry room, and throughout the facility are art pieces, woodwork, paintings, and leather creations made by prisoners during their time in the clink. You can also learn more about various prison escape attempts and check out photos of prisoners with tattoos and the meanings behind the different prison ink.
The museum is also full of the more serious, upsetting, and eerie sides of prison life. There’s an array of brutal instruments that were once used to control the prisoners (which are now illegal, thankfully), and the execution tables, contraband, and the prison beating bench where inmates were punished. Out on the lawn is a former gas chamber used to execute prisoners. The chamber is lined with the photos and bios of the men who breathed their last in that room.
The museum’s summer hours, starting May 1, are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Tickets to get in and tours are no more than $10.