Since turning to a life of crime writing, I’ve found myself in some peculiar places, at least in my imagination. Yesterday I went to an actual place. Jackson prison has haunted me for the better part of my life. When my writer’s group Michigan Sisters in Crime scheduled a tour, I had serious doubts about actually stepping foot into a place so loaded with personal significance. I wondered, could I put my sad connection to this place aside and view the tour as research? Other such tours had served my crime writing well. Jackson could be one more place. When a much needed plot point featuring “Jacktown” popped into my head. It was so good I knew I had to go.
This is why a writer needs a group like mine. By hanging out with like-minded people, you will be inspired. My head started filing ideas into a perfect place in my story even before we took the three hour tour. I thought of how postcards would be important to my story even before I bought several from the gift shop. Yes, the Jackson prison complex, at least the areas open to public tours, have gift shops. One in the old jail (closed in the 1920s) and one in the infamous Cell Block 7, where for decades every prisoner handed a sentence was kept at least for a while until they started sorting out the mentally ill and other special cases.
Our first stop was the holding cell where all criminals were processed, searched, and issued uniforms with a long number ID and a single capital letter. The letter A meant you were a first timer. That must have been his letter, I thought, of my beloved family member whose crimes were victimless drug offenses. He’d been incarcerated in this very building for a number of years when I was a young girl. The holding cell I stood in, despite the metal benches molded to the wall, was usually “standing room only.” So he had once stood where I stood, because that holding cell was small.
The old jail had been an interesting history lesson. There was a large photo of an even older Jackson prison, built of logs and surrounded by old posts like a military fort from the 18th century. Our tour guide said Indian attacks were still common in Michigan at that time. The prison that came after was brick and fronted by a lovely park-like setting. The Purple Gang stories from that era were particularly colorful. The Purples ran the show. For example, during prohibition, liquor was for sale to inmates in the commissary.
On the way to Cell Block 7, I asked our tour guide if Cell Block 7 had been a working part of the prison in the 1970s. Yes, he said. I pointed out behind us to the still working prison farm where inmates on good behavior could be out in the open air to pick produce all day. My uncle had graduated to that, near the end of his sentence. After his release, he told me it had been the best part of his horrible experience. It was a sort of freedom, he said. He lived many years after his release, but died twenty years ago, way too soon.
Inside Cell Block 7, we were allowed to explore the extensive area alone or with the group. Our tour guide showed us how the cells were opened, where the gun room was, where the guards stood. We saw shower stalls and learned about the cockroaches that infested the building, adding to the stench of hundreds of men’s body odors. He pointed out the best place on the stairs to kill another inmate, who might walk two or three steps before realizing he was dead and collapse. No inmate ever saw anything and if he did he feigned complete ignorance.
While the rest of my group disbursed to various corners of Cell Block 7, I was drawn to a cell (there were a few open for our inspection) with colorful post-it notes covering the walls. Being a writer I thought, well sure, this guy was a writer. His poems or ideas covered the walls. But that was not the case. A pack of multi-colored post-its lay on a little metal desk bolted to the floor. Next to the pad, a pen invited any visitor to write something and stick it to the cell wall. I wrote “I love you, Uncle Jack” and drew a heart under the words before I plastered it to a blank spot on the wall.