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Jackson Prison Museum Sets Closing Date

A museum devoted to the state prison system in Jackson will close its doors for the last time later this month.

Jackson’s prison was once known as the biggest walled prison in the world, with more than 5,700 cells. It opened in 1934. Cell block 7 was an active part of the prison until 2007. Five years ago, the Ella Sharp Museum worked with the state department of corrections to turn the cell block into a museum open to the public.

Thirty-five thousand visitors have toured Cell Block 7, but mounting pressures related to money, staffing and maintenance have led the Ella Sharp Museum to shut it down.

Brad Collins is museum manager at Cell Block 7. He explains the processing area, the first stop for new inmates, by saying “they checked in at this first gate here and made sure paperwork was correct, make sure that the inmate is supposed to be coming to Jackson at that time, then they will take them through all of the various gates to the holding cell.”

A prisoner might be alone in that holding cell for a while, or he might find himself crammed into this space with dozens of others for hours. There’s a sink and a toilet here, and let’s just say there would be no privacy.

Next comes a shower, inmate clothing, a medical evaluation, fingerprinting, and a photo before heading down a ramp to the cell block. 

Cell Block 7 is five stories tall and has more than 500 cells. Collins says new inmates would stay here for up to six weeks, segregated from the general population.

NEW INMATES COULD NOT HAVE VISITORS

Not only are you adjusting to prison life, but a lot of it is you don’t really have the support those first few weeks. It can be a pretty tough overall experience. Cell Block 7 Museum manager Brad Collins.

On Display in Cell Block 7 are an array of makeshift items made by prisoners here. Everything from dice made out of toilet paper to weapons fashioned from toothbrushes. There are also guard uniforms and razor wire in cases, and a large model of the entire prison complex.

Among the cells visitors see is one adorned with sticky notes left by visitors who have recorded their thoughts on prison. Former inmates, former staff and their families have been to the cell block.

Elsewhere, you can peer into the cell Robert Redford sat in while filming 2018’s “The Old Man and the Gun.”

You can explore all five stories of the cell block, but there’s no elevator. On the upper level, you can peek into the gun turret area. There’s no door; guards only had access from the roof. Collins explains "that’d be the only spot inside the block where there’d actually be firearms held by the officers, so if something happened down on the block, they could actually fire off a warning shot, and if that didn’t slow everything down, they could potentially use live ammunition.”

One thing you can’t do here is actually be locked in a cell. The locking and unlocking system does work, but it’s old. Visitors could be hurt by closing doors, and it isn’t guaranteed that the doors would reopen.

The Cell Block 7 Museum is open Friday through Sunday from 10 to 5, with guided tours starting at 10:30 and 2. Collins recommends arriving early to check in. Reservations are not needed. You’ll be required to leave your camera and your phone in your car. Collins stresses that visitors are safe.

The museum will close its doors forever on December 29th.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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