Films, events, donations fund other aging prisons

May 24, 2012

The Missouri State Penitentiary is one of the oldest prisons in the country, but there are even older ones that survived both centuries of inmates and decades of decay. The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia are now fully operating tourist sites.

Organizers at those prisons say they kept their penitentiaries alive through public events, movie filming, local grants, donations and other funding efforts.

But Steve Picker said those funding sources often aren’t an option for MSP, because it is owned by the state. Picker is the executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which operates the MSP tours.

“We’re not actually able to just create the events we want to create, we have to get approval for them,” Picker said. “We would love to do some of that stuff, but the challenge is getting that permission.”

Dan Seckel, who was involved in preservation at the Ohio State Reformatory, said state ownership was an impediment to his site’s preservation. When the government owns a historic site, he said, everyone else expects them to pay for it.

“(But) when a group of people agree to work hard, you can get other people to buy into it, so people don’t just push the task on to somebody else,” Seckel said. A non-profit was formed in Ohio to take ownership of the prison.

Missouri’s tough economic situation makes it difficult for the state to fund preservation at MSP. The state is also unable to receive grants that the other state prisons received because they were owned by private entities, Picker said.

State ownership makes donations difficult to get as well. Michael Berry, a member of the MSP Redevelopment Commission, said potential donors would prefer to specify how their money is used.

“What we have found is that it’s difficult to get people really excited about what is basically a contribution of money to the state,” Berry said.

Gene Bushmann, another member of the MSP commission, said the commission does not spend much time or energy seeking donations. He said he doubted anyone would want to donate to a stigmatized location like a prison.

He also said he thinks public events would diminish the site’s historical value, even though other historic prisons have had success with those endeavors.

“We want to preserve it, we don’t want a lot of people going into it who are not closely supervised,” Bushmann said.

Eastern State Penitentiary and the Ohio State Reformatory also saw revenue from the filming of movies within their walls. Seckel said the Reformatory didn’t receive a lot of direct compensation from the filming of The Shawshank Redemption, but has brought in lots of tourists.

Picker said the Missouri state office that takes care of MSP created a location agreement to enable filming at the site. For now, they are still working on logistics, but he said he hopes to see filming there sometime in the future.