JACKSON, Mich. (WOOD) — As Cell Block 7, a prison museum in Jackson, announces its permanent closing at the end of the year, Executive Director Diane Gutenkauf reflects on the unique opportunity that the exhibit has offered since opening in 2014.
The exhibit gives visitors a glimpse of life behind bars. It shares the same grounds as the former State Prison of Southern Michigan, which was decommissioned in 2007.
The museum has brought in over 35,000 visitors, including former inmates, correctional officers and those just curious about life on the inside.
“People are always curious about things they can’t see,” Gutenkauf said. “You can’t get into a prison.”
The exhibit is a part of the Ella Sharp Museum. Gutenkauf says the exhibit showcases how the prison is part of Jackson’s past and present.
“Inmate 532500 was here in 2005. Top tear room 45. Feels way better from this point of view.”
“My son was in the Michigan prison system starting at a young age 19 years old. It kills me to see the inside a prison walls.”
“This is where my dad lives.”
Those are some of the visitor messages posted inside Cell Block 7.
“This was built starting in (19)24 and they used prison labor to build it,” Gutenkauf told News 8 during a private tour of Cell Block 7.
At its peak, Cell Block 7 housed more than 500 inmates, some of its prisoners included the state’s most infamous criminals and even a few professional athletes.
Gutenkauf said what makes Cell Block 7 unique from other prison museums is that it’s attached to an active prison.
“This is a blessing and a curse,” she said.
Visitors are often reminded of the exhibit’s realistic nature when passing inmates in the prison yard on their way inside.
“It’s an opportunity for us to explain that those people that they see are not zoo animals. They’re human beings and you can see them,” Gutenkauf said.
The museum leases the space from the Michigan Department of Corrections and has worked with them when it comes to the content and operations of the exhibit.
Operating alongside an active prison has come with its challenges.
Out of an abundance of caution for the safety and security of everyone on the grounds, Gutenkauf said the museum is limited in the type of experience they can offer. For instance, no cell phones or cameras are allowed inside the exhibit.
The expense and logistics of maintaining the vacant prison facility have also been challenging for the museum.
Gutenkauf said it costs nearly $20,000 a year just to light and heat the five-story building.
>> App users: View a photo gallery of the museum here.
Due to these and other complications and concerns, Gutenkauf said the Ella Sharp Board of Directors decided to permanently close the Cell Block 7 Museum.
“By closing, (the public is) losing out on that visceral first-person opportunity to walk into this powerful space,” Gutenkauf said.
Part of Cell Block 7, including its history and select artifacts, will live on at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson.
Cell Block 7 will remain open through Dec. 29. Before visiting, check the website for its winter hours in addition to information about scheduling a group tour.