As part of the tours, someone is “arrested” to demonstrate the corruption and bribery that went on in prisons years ago. Here tour guide Steve Rudolph stands with the visitor, wearing black and white striped prison garb. It wasn’t uncommon to have someone fork out $1,200 to buy out a murderer from behind bars.
By Monetta Harr
Judy Gail Krasnow is a marketing manager extraordinaire, “selling” everything from what it was like to be locked up in the world’s largest walled prison to stories about those prisoners.
When she moved in 2008 from Miami to Jackson in an apartment in the renovated Armory Arts Village, the professional storyteller started looking for ways to earn more money. She didn’t have to look far, since her own two-level loft was once 38 tiny cells in the old Jackson Prison.
Krasnow started offering tours of the building, including the creepy dungeon in the basement and even a few underground tunnels. Gradually she got lunches catered, opened a gift shop and then, as more and more people visited from around the country and world, she worked with the prison system to include live tours at what, as a result of these popular tours, has now become the Cell Block 7 Museum in the facility at 4000 Cooper St..
“When I first began doing tours at Armory Arts Village, I decided on a whim to attend the Governor’s Annual Tourism Conference. That whim changed my life and tourism in Jackson. Joining Circle Michigan (under the Pure Michigan umbrella) has been like obtaining a degree in the industry of tourism,” she said.
Before long, Krasnow was forming combination tours such as the ‘From Sinners to Saints to Fermented Grapes,’ a prison tour followed by a stop at St. Demetrius Orthodox Church with its exquisite iconography and heavenly baklava, followed by the Sandhill Crane Winery for its tour, wine-tasting and dinner. Now my company works with venues from Detroit to Kalamazoo.
“We have turned Jackson into a tourist destination.”
In December, Krasnow spent three weeks with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren who live in Belgium. Naturally they toured area sites and one was a medieval prison with truly brutal forms of punishment. It has inspired Krasnow to want to create an exhibit of “law and justice from medieval times to today. I want to examine the change from physical to psychological punishment and look at if there truly is a difference between them,” she said.
In the Old Prison Gift Shop in the Armory Arts Village, tourists can buy prison-themed mugs and t-shirts. She is joining with other Jackson businesses and selling, for instance, candy from the Jackson Candy & Fudge Factory. She also displays artwork and essays by current inmates, including stories about how they went off the path, as well as work from the Prison Creative Arts Program. It has garnered such enthusiasm that even an inmate’s mother is contributing her own words of what it is like to have a son behind bars.
The Crooks Book Nook, part of the gift shop, is the biggest draw. And now it will include Krasnow’s latest book, “JACKTOWN: History & Hard Times at Michigan’s First State Prison” (Aracadia Publishing and The History Press). The paperback book, which is being released this month, has 70 images about 175 pages and sells for $21.99. It is also available at www.arcadiapublishing.com.
“This is what keeps me excited, the creative process,” said Krasnow, stirring cream into a cup of coffee at a downtown Jackson restaurant. Her close-cropped red hair, dangly earrings and bright colored sweater all lend to her enthusiasm, quickly evident as the coffee gets cold as Krasnow talks about the future.
Krasnow’s creative mind is constantly working, how to better support her own business or work with other tourist sites, including the upcoming Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake.
“Jackson is at the hub of everything, whether it is people driving from Chicago to Detroit, or taking in the prison tours and going north to Cops & Donuts in Clare.”
There are many options in visiting Jackson prisons, and for information on them, call 517-817-8960, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit historicprisontours.com. Visitors can take the Old Prison Tour, go to the Michigan Theater for a live presentation, they can have lunch and take the Cell Block 7 tour. They can do all of those or choose just one.