When the Colorado Territorial Legislature earmarked funding to establish the University of Colorado in 1872, there was a competition between two cities, Cañon City and Boulder, to host it. After Boulder was selected, Cañon City was awarded the contract to build the new Colorado State Prison—a consolation prize to be located close to the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary that was built on Cañon City’s outskirts just one year before.

From these humble beginnings, Cañon City and surrounding portions of Fremont County have since developed into the self-declared “Corrections Capital of the World.” Today, this area hosts 11 federal and state slammers, including ADX Florence—the highest-security penitentiary and only Supermax prison in America, aka the Alcatraz of the Rockies—that houses hundreds of notorious inmates like Ted Kaczynski and Terry Nichols.

These prisons—which incarcerate more than 7,500 inmates—provide thousands of stable, high-paying jobs in a rural county whose entire population totals less than 47,000. With the Royal Gorge nearby, tourism is another crucial leg of the area’s economy, so local business leaders decided to marry the two and create a museum that entertains visitors while also “locking up” an important part of the region’s past.

Located in a former women’s facility built (of course) by convict labor in 1935, the museum shares a thick stone wall and guard towers with the original territorial jail. This was the fourth building constructed to separate female inmates from the men. The two sexes engaged in very different activities while locked up. The men had access to vocational training, while the women spent their time cooking, cleaning, and even making the male inmates’ underwear. Yes, really.

After overcrowding forced the construction of a new female correctional facility, Cañon City’s women’s prison ceased operations in 1968. Although it’s since been remodeled, the building retains many original facilities, including the laundry, kitchen, and two solitary confinement chambers. Its main floor still hosts 30 cells, each of which has a different display about life behind bars, including the local prison riots of 1929 and 1947. But by far the most evocative exhibit is the antiquated lime-green gas chamber, whose eerie ambiance is a sober reminder of the building’s—and the region’s—macabre utility.

The Museum of Colorado Prisons is located in a former women’s jail near Canon City. Credit: VisitCOS.com

Visit: The Colorado Prison Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from mid-May through late September, and Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission costs $8 per adult. 201 North 1st Street, Cañon City; 719-269-9148

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.