Voluntary Lockdown: Is Your Next Vacation in Jail?
Outside of civil disobedience protests, the concept of voluntarily going to jail is not among the most popular pursuits. But in the small town of Hampton, Iowa, a venue is offering visitors the opportunity of doing time without having to break the law.
The Franklin County Historic Jail was built in 1880 and remained operational until 1988. While listed as a National Historic Landmark, it was mostly closed to the public until Mark Gudmundsen purchased the property with the idea of using it as a jail role-playing facility. Visitors to the jail can pick their own sentences (ranging from an hour or two to a week) and their own levels of incarceration (ranging from a no-security level that recreates the inmate processing procedure to a maximum security level that puts the visitor into solitary confinement).
EDGE spoke with Gudmundsen about his unusual tourist destination.
EDGE: What inspired you to purchase this Iowa property and turn it into a jail adventure location? And how much did it cost to acquire it?
Mark Gudmundsen:I have always been interested in old jails and prisons. I have done prison role playing with friends for years. It is really just an extension of what we used to do as children when playing cops and robbers. Most kids grew out of it, but I think that it is still fun to play and think that playing can help keep us young at heart.
I accidentally saw a newspaper article about the jail being for sale online. I was intrigued with the idea of actually owning a county jail somewhere. I wasn't very serious about it at first, but then decided to fly out and look at it.
After looking at the building, I went to Doug Tarr, who worked as the city code enforcement officer, and told him about the idea of doing a jail role play adventure at the old jail. I told both the realtor and Doug that I would not purchase the property without the assurance that it was zoned properly in order to do a jail role playing adventure for guests. He was enthusiastic about the idea and assured me that the city would be happy to have this here.
I made an offer on the property with the contingency that it be put in writing by the City of Hampton that I could do a role play adventure. I clearly wrote out the idea and he answered via e-mail to my realtor that all of the uses that I had described would fit within the commercial zoning of the area. I purchased it for $45,900. Of course the restoration and repairs to the building far exceeded the cost. And the building is still not finished.
EDGE: Who are the correctional officers that are maintaining control over the facility?
Mark Gudmundsen:I am the person who is running the role playing. There are some others involved at times who are friends. They come from varied backgrounds, one of them being a former police officer, but the others just like to do the role playing as I do. They are not paid for their help. As I see what the load is here, I will determine if I need to hire some more staff.
EDGE: This project ran into a bit of an obstacle when a rumor started that this would be run as an adult business. What occurred and how were you able to resolve the town's concerns over your plans?
Mark Gudmundsen: The problem came when the local newspaper printed an article that I had a "bondage" website where I could be seen in all kinds of extreme restraints. The newspaper let both the Chamber of Commerce and the city manager know that I was homosexual and involved in BDSM activities. The Chamber of Commerce kicked me out, and the City Manager told the paper that my business would not meet the codes because it was an "adult" business.
I reviewed my website and let my attorney review it. Nothing was found that could be considered adult. Doug Tarr was quoted by the newspaper as saying that if he had known about my website, meninchains.com, that it would have raised all kinds of red flags. They were of the opinion that I should have told them about my personal preferences that, in my opinion have nothing to do with the operation of a museum and nonsexual role play adventure. The city manager brought up to me that I was only allowing adults to do the role playing. I had not extended it to youth, as I was not sure about what my liability might be.
After doing a little bit of research, I changed my Hampton jail website to include children in the role playing adventures as long as a parent was with them at all times. This change seemed to have helped to calm down the rumors and speculation that I was going to run something different than I had been saying I would all along. Since then, people in city management and the Chamber of Commerce seem to be friendly to me.
EDGE: Hampton is somewhat off the beaten path for many people. Do you and the town expect a new influx of visitors based on this venture?
Mark Gudmundsen:I don't expect a lot of visitors to the jail. But I do expect that the city of Hampton will benefit with the added tourism that I will bring it.
EDGE: Who is the targeted audience for the new jail endeavor?
Mark Gudmundsen: My target audience is anyone who would like to see what it might be like to go to jail. I don't care what their gender, race, or sexual interests are. As long as they abide by my strict rules, I have no problem with anyone coming here.
EDGE: What is your ultimate business goal for the Franklin jail? Would you see this turning into a successful franchise network?
Mark Gudmundsen: I don't see this as a franchise. It is a very unique, one-of-a-kind historic jail. I just want to have it make enough to keep me fed and pay the bills. I doubt that I will get very rich running it. I want it to be something that everyone can enjoy. If the business does not do well enough, then I plan to sell the building as commercial office space.
If things go well, I hope to develop a museum next year in the front of the sheriff's house. I want to do free tours and then talk to youth about bullying and accepting others, even when they are different. I have been informed that bullying is still a huge problem in this area. I hope I can do something to change that fact.