Old Jack Town

Written in stages from 2005 to 2010.

Sneaking into vacant penal institutions didn't used to be a thing in Michigan until after about 2005, because we really didn't have any to choose from. There’s the Dunes Correctional Facility on the sandy lower west coast of the Mitten, which the ghost-hunters seem to like, and then there’s the aforementioned DeHoCo, and two older pens–the Michigan State Reformatory, and the “Old” Jackson Prison.

The Reformatory was a medieval remnant from the mid-1800's, stationed in the beautiful city of Ionia, a small quiet place that has been an institutional town since pretty much forever. There are still about four active penal institutions within its borders, and it also once contained the Ionia State Asylum for Insane Criminals.

The Reformatory has the old 20-foot-tall stone walls, turrets and everything, but its appearance today is a far-cry from its beauty of yesteryear...much of its architecture has been stripped off or toned down, and replaced with razor-wire:

I drove around it once, and quickly despaired of any sort of infiltration.

Another time I stopped in the town of Jackson, on my way out to Kalamazoo. I felt like driving by the infamous Jackson Prison, which was for a long time the world’s largest walled prison. It had a reputation throughout Michigan (and especially Detroit) as the one place that you did not want to end up. It was our Alcatraz, or SingSing, if you will; a place that housed the worst of the worst, where inmates were brutally beaten as common practice up until at least the 1920s.

But what I did not know yet was that there were actually two Jackson Prisons–an old one, and an even older one. I was driving up the road and before I got to the prison I saw some extremely eye-catching ruins on my left–they looked like the battlements of an ancient castle. I stopped and began taking pictures for awhile. I knew that the in-use prison was still just up the road...this was the original incarnation of that penitentiary.

I walked around it, salivating at its magnificent stone-hewn construction and medieval-looking turrets, and wondering how I hadn't known of it before. It was rather overgrown in foliage and starting to crumble just a bit, yet it was basically in the middle of town. Of course Jackson, like other Michigan cities, suffers from a lot of decay, and there were abandoned-looking factories on both sides of the prison. As I walked the train tracks behind it, I noticed a small carved tablet set into the formidable outer wall itself, though it was very much hidden by 10-foot-tall overgrowth. It read, “Michigan State Prison, 1842:”

I also noticed a set of incredibly large steel doors, almost like one would expect to see guarding the way into Mordor:

They were also hidden behind a wall of foliage. However, when I rounded the next corner, I found that this place was not abandoned at all, but still in use as a Michigan National Guard vehicle storage depot.

This tablet in this tower says "Erected 1900—Wm. Chamberlain, Warden":

The town of Jackson (originally named "Jacksonopolis," and "Jacksonburg") was founded in 1829 where the Grand River crosses the Old Chicago Road, an ancient migratory path started by nomadic hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago, that later became Michigan Avenue (US-12), connecting Detroit to Chicago. The Old Chicago Road, or Old Sauk Trail as it was first called, is the oldest continuously-used pathway known in North America.

The settlement, and the county of which it became the seat were named in honor of President Jackson, because it was during his term of office that the town was founded (even though he sided against Michigan in the outcome of the contentious Toledo War with Ohio). One may note that other southern-Michigan counties founded around this time were named after members of President Jackson's cabinet.

Jackson's main claim to fame is the fact that it was the birthplace of the Republican Party, back when it was all about the abolition of slavery (1854). They also claim (at least on Wikipedia) to be the birthplace of the coney dog, in 1914, which is three years before the Keros Bros. opened their famous coney islands in Detroit.

According to Willis Dunbar and George May's seminal History of the Wolverine State,  Jackson also had a major part in the early automotive industry, manufacturing many different lesser-known marques, as well as supplying parts for others. Some of the early Buicks were produced here in an old vacant Durant-Dort factory from 1904 to 1908 when Billy Durant was tooling up to rejuvenate the car-making business in Flint. It was during this short time period that Buicks became famous, and the genesis of General Motors was taking place. Goodyear and Dow Chemical built plants here, and there were even a few coal mines sprinkled around Jackson County.

Dunbar and May explain that the Michigan State Prison got its start when the legislature authorized the state's first prison to be built in 1837. Ironically, this was also the same year that Michigan became the first state to abolish capital punishment when the deathbed confession of a man who had committed a murder near Detroit was publicized, after an innocent man had been mistakenly tried and hanged for the crime.

Jackson Prison was built according to a new system used at a prison at Auburn, New York, which allowed for inmates to have individual cells, yet be able to work together in groups during the day. This first iteration of Jackson Prison was a wooden structure in a muddy yard, surrounded by a palisade of logs. The state chose to build it on a swamp, because it was donated land.

Detroit was still holding public floggings in the 1830s, and the construction of the state prison at Jackson was a first step toward "a more humane attitude" in dealing with offenders (though I think those housed in that filthy mud pit in 1838 might have rather taken the flogging). The first permanent (stone) building here, the West Cellblock, was completed in 1842, and the East Cellblock in 1857, but neither it, nor the stone wall that surrounded these two buildings remains today. The West Cellblock still stands. The "massive, medieval-like" walls we see here today were built starting in the 1880s, and expanded several times.

In the old Jackson Prison, according to the preface to A History of Jackson Prison 1920-1975, by Frank Sudia,
The silent rule was rigidly enforced, and inmates moved about in the traditional lockstep march. The prison regularly used striped uniforms, the ball and chain, and the lash. Most inmates worked at hard labor under a contract system which was typical of American prisons in the nineteenth century. The state furnished workshops, usually rent free, and inmate labor at bargain prices to a contractor who brought machines and raw materials into the prison for inmates to work. In return for a flat fee, the state housed, fed, and guarded the work force. Both the state and the private contractor made a profit. This system was in general use until the early twentieth century.

Sudia goes on to say that the first Jackson Prison had a reputation for its harshness in the 1800s...
Some reformers demanded an end to the contract system, the creation of vocational opportunities, the abolition of corporal punishments, and the institution of the indeterminate sentence, with paroles based on good conduct. There were also many who thought the old prison was outmoded and dilapidated. But little was done until conditions at the old prison forced action. By the turn of the century the prison had been expanded in every direction and was seriously cramped for space. Prisoners slept in the corridors, and there was little room for the expansion of prison industries. A squeeze on profits provoked concern among businessmen. A serious riot in 1911 kindled interest among legislators in building a new prison. But it was not until after the First World War, in 1920, that the legislature finally authorized the preparation of plans for a new prison. Construction began in 1924. The new prison was to have the dubious honor of being the largest walled institution in the world.

The "indeterminate sentence" that Sudia mentions is actually also a Michigan-born idea, one that was conceived in the old Detroit House of Corrections, as I discussed in an earlier post:
The first superintendent of DeHoCo was Zebulon Brockway, a "penologist," who is sometimes referred to as the father of prison reform. One of his chief innovations while in Detroit was the concept of "work and release" supervision programs, and "indeterminate sentencing." We know this concept today as "parole."
Inside a watch tower, the stairs have rotted out:

Linda S. Godfrey wrote of the Old Jackson Prison in her book Weird Michigan, and according to her the inmates weren't the only ones who hated the place—a nearby resident wrote a poem in 1904, which contained the following excerpt about the prison:

And where the prison adds its prismy ooze
Which to the fish and frogs proves "knock-out booze,"
Full gorged no wonder there the current mopes
Like some poor fool the bland dive-keeper dopes;
While up and down on weeds fermenting lie
The "sewer creams" whose smells refuse to die.

I could see the place was still obviously maintained to a degree…the Michigan National Guard hadn’t quite yet stopped using the facility yet:

On the left in that photo you can see where what I believe is the old West Cellblock has been joined with a more modern 1880s structure.

According to a 1937 article in the Jackson Citizen Patriot that was paraphrased on Wikipedia (sorry),
During the first year after the prison was opened, 35 inmates were admitted, of whom seven managed to escape over the walls. The first mass break happened in 1840. Ten convicts overpowered two of the guards and broke free from the prison walls. They fled to Spring Arbor where they ran into a farmer, James Videto. He attempted to stop them, but the inmates took Videto’s shotgun, beat him with it and left him on the road. After a few days, George Norton, the leader of the escape, was killed by another farmer. All but two of the rest of the convicts were eventually caught. 
On September 1, 1912, a riot that is described by many as the worst riot in the prison’s history began. The first sign of trouble was when inmates starting throwing plates against the walls of the dining halls. Many fights followed after this and the riot lasted for six days. On the sixth day, the 90 or so inmates that were leading the riot were beaten and the riot eventually came to an end, but not until after the governor had called in the National Guard.
Parts of the old wall look very old:

According to more stories in Godfrey's book Weird Michigan, once the prison was converted into a National Guard depot, those who went into the former “Death Row” area reported feeling “unseen eyes boring into them” and hearing “muffled unidentified noises” in the old hall. I have to call bullshit on that however, because Michigan repealed the death penalty in 1846 around the time this facility was built and has not had one since, so there could not have been a death row here.

Today all that remains is the outer wall and the main cell block…obviously many buildings inside the walls, and the old administration wing have fallen:

Photo from uvm.edu
Another ghost story that was told in Weird Michigan was that train engineers and brakemen who passed by the walls of the old prison at night sometimes reported seeing apparitions of men jumping from the wall onto the moving train.

Photo from michiganrailroads.com
This was a common method of attempted escape during the prison’s years of operation, Godfrey wrote; conditions were so bad there that men actually risked it. Of course most failed and met a horrible bloody death, but apparently some of them keep trying in the afterlife?

According to the book Michillaneous by Gary Barfknecht, there was an old house near the prison that experienced hauntings from 1961 to 1964. The house was built in 1837, and coal mine tunnels ran underneath it that were reportedly dug by prison inmates. Allegedly the sounds of footsteps and loud banging could be heard in the basement, as well as other poltergeist-type activity in the rest of the house.

Jackson Prison was also once home to one of the most famous Detroit Tigers baseball stars of all time, Ron LeFlore, who was signed to the team directly from prison. A movie was even made about him in 1977.

My first trip to Jackson Prison was in 2005. In 2007, a friend and I made a very brief return visit on our way home from Kalamazoo, and found restoration efforts were already underway.

This time however we were able to drive right into the complex and wander through a couple buildings.

Once again, here is the c.1842 West Cellblock, shown with a large addition, probably built in the 1880s or later:

Now that's a window:

Ahem...don't look at this next photo...

Okay, you can look again.

What a nifty, photogenic structure!

The National Guard was gone, and clean-out in preparation for renovation was underway, because someone got the idea to turn the joint into artists' lofts or something.

I mean, I certainly am glad that the place is being saved but I don't know that I would want to live there.

Here we are inside the cavernous West Cellblock:

As you can see, the actual cell block is long gone, along with everything else inside.

Support structures that have no doubt been modified from their original purposes a few times:

Unfortunately, since my friend had to get home for his bowling night we didn’t have enough time to be as felonious as we wanted to be. So this promising little tunnel had to be passed up. I still look at this photograph to this day and wonder about the tunnel that got away...I bet it would've given access to the large building at left:

CLICK to go to my other Jackson post.

Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Dunbar and May, (Third Ed).
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976
A History of Jackson Prison 1920-1975, by Frank Sudia
"Southern Michigan Prison Century Old," Jackson Citizen Patriot, March 22, 1937
Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey
Michillaneous, by Gary Barfknecht, p. 30