Former Kansas State Penitentiary now open for public tours

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LANSING, Kansas (KCTV) — It’s not as famous as Alcatraz, but the Kansas State Penitentiary has a more interesting history than some might realize, and the Lansing Historical Society plans to share about it.

The original prison, known in modern days as the Lansing Correctional Facility, was abandoned several years ago when a new one opened right behind it. State lawmakers were discussing the cost of tearing down some of the old buildings when a local lawmaker suggested doing tours instead. It required a non-profit. The Lansing Historical Society jumped at the offer.

On Thursday, Historical Society president Debra Bates-Lamborn gave KCTV5 a preview tour of the state’s oldest prison. She recently toured the old Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City and learned it had become one of the state’s top tourist destinations. Her vision is to greet even more visitors seeing that Lansing is closer to a major airport and the county is known for its prison industry.

“A long time ago our tourism group had [the slogan] do some time in Leavenworth,” she said. “That’s because we had so many prisons.”

The state prison complex in Lansing has separate prisons for each of the three security levels. Neighboring Leavenworth has a federal civilian prison and a federal military prison.

Until 1990, the Lansing Correctional Facility was called the Kansas State Penitentiary. Construction on the original limestone building began in the 1860s using prison labor. There was a brief halt in construction due to the Civil War. The prison executed state, federal and military prisoners by hanging until 1965. Among those hanged: were the two men convicted of killing the Clutter family, a murder which was the subject of the Truman Capote novel In Cold Blood.

Perhaps the most famous person to spend time at the prison wasn’t a prisoner. It was Johnny Cash. He played on the auditorium stage in 1970 with his wife June Carter Cash.

“And then he went over and performed at the federal prison at Leavenworth,” Bates-Lamborn said. “So, we had him first.”

Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson, the county’s top prosecutor, championed the plan to offer tours.

“As a lifelong resident, it’s something I think is going to bring a lot of people here to tour and see how wonderful our community is,” said Thompson. “As a prosecutor, what I hope is people wanting to come visit and learn why they don’t want to stay here.”

It can be about tourism and curiosity or something more personal. Bates-Lamborn, Thompson and Kansas Department of Corrections personnel were conducting the media tour when Thompson spotted someone familiar. Leavenworth Mayor Jermaine Wilson was there shooting a documentary. He spent nearly three years there on a drug possession conviction. He had just seen his old cell for the first time since he was released 13 years ago.

“I was in C2 cell house and my cell number was 507,” Wilson said. “It was overwhelming, emotionally overwhelming, knowing that this is where the transformation started.”

His time in prison he has strengthened his spirituality. He now mentors prisoners and speaks about second chances.

“You can’t undo what’s been done, but you have an opportunity to do something that’s never been done,” Wilson said. “I lost my freedom but I discovered my purpose.”

With tours on the horizon, he’s excited about being able to show his 16-year-old son where he wrote his letters home, the place that made him want to find a new beginning and keep his son from becoming the third generation of incarcerated men in his family. The visit Thursday was emotional, he said, but necessary.

“I needed to close the door,” Wilson stated.

He hopes it will do the same for others once tours begin. Bates-Lamborn said The Lansing Historical Society will meet with the Kansas Department of Corrections next week to get the final go-ahead. They hope to begin offering tours in February.

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