Located in the town of Cañon City, the Museum of Colorado Prisons presents an intriguing exploration into the state’s penitentiary past.

We explored this museum during our camping trip at the Bank Campground at the Shelf Road Recreation Area.

colorado territorial prison museum sign
Colorado Territorial Prison Museum Sign in Canon City

Museum of Colorado Prisons

The Museum of Colorado Prisons in Canon City is located next to the federal penitentiary. It’s truly a fascinating way to spend a few hours, albeit a bit depressing.

Canon City has long been known for its concentration of state and federal prisons. This list includes the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility and the Fremont Correctional Facility. It also includes the Centennial Correctional Facility, Arrowhead Correctional Center, and Four Mile Correctional Facility. Others are nearby too.

The reputation originated in 1868 when builders constructed the first prison, initially named the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary, even before Colorado achieved statehood.

colorado state penitentiary sign
Colorado State Penitentiary Sign outside the prison

Established in 1871, the penitentiary ranks among the oldest penal institutions in the western United States.

Colorado Territorial prison "old Max" historical sign
Old Max historical marker

Over the decades, the prison system saw many changes. Approaches to incarceration evolved. They moved from solitary confinement to reform and rehabilitation programs.

Warning sign outside of the Colorado prison museum
Warning sign outside of Colorado Prison

Inside the Museum of Colorado Prisons

Housed in the original Women’s Correctional Facility, which served from 1935 until 1968, the Museum of Colorado Prisons offers a unique glimpse into the lives of those who lived and worked behind bars.

colorado prison museum in canon city
The prison museum building

The museum’s exhibits are as diverse as they are educational, providing insights into various aspects of prison life and administration.

The museum displays many fascinating items. These include views of old cells used by female prisoners and an old gas chamber. It also features items made by inmates in the Colorado State Penitentiary for the gift shop. Additionally, it showcases items prisoners used to pass time, like ropes from escape attempts.

The museum’s extensive collection, comprising of more than 30,000 artifacts, paints a vivid picture of Colorado’s correctional history.

shanks on display at Colorado prison museum
Display of shanks taken from prisoners

Visitors can explore a range of displays, including:

The Hall of Cells in the Museum of Colorado Prisons

One of the most immersive experiences in the museum is the Hall of Cells.

hall of cells in Colorado prison museum
Hall of Cells in the Museum of Colorado Prisons

Visitors to the museum can explore 32 cells filled with exhibits, including life-sized models and memorabilia from both the women’s prison and other Colorado prisons.

This exhibit features a series of reconstructed prison cells from different eras, each outfitted to reflect the living conditions and period-specific furnishings.

prison cell in Colorado prison museum
Prison cell in the Museum of Colorado Prisons in Canon City

Visitors can step inside the cells, experiencing the stark realities of confinement—from the sparse, early 20th-century cells to the somewhat improved conditions of later decades.

prison cell in women's prison
Women’s prison cell

The exhibits offer historical photographs, confiscated weapons, and contraband. They also include inmate arts and crafts. These give a full view of the prison system from 1871 to now.

contraband display at Colorado prison museum
Sample contraband taken from prisoners

The Solitary Confinement Experience in the Museum of Colorado Prisons

Another powerful exhibit is the Solitary Confinement Experience.

This interactive display allows visitors to enter a replica solitary confinement cell, offering a glimpse into the psychological impact of isolation.

The exhibit features audio narrations with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement. It prompts visitors to think about the human rights and mental health impacts of this practice.

The Death Penalty in Colorado

The Death Penalty in Colorado exhibit is a thought-provoking display that explores the history and ethical debates surrounding capital punishment in the state.

gas chamber in prison museum
Gas chamber at the prison museum

In 1988, Colorado altered its execution technique from the gas chamber to lethal injection.

The exhibit centers around the actual gas chamber used until Colorado abolished the death penalty, featuring narratives of those executed, information on legal and social movements against the death penalty, and discussions on alternative sentencing.

Art Behind Bars

Art Behind Bars showcases the creative expressions of inmates, featuring artwork, crafts, and inventions made by prisoners using limited materials available to them.

A prisoner spent many hours creating the chess set displayed below from toilet paper and water, but it was deemed contraband and removed from his cell.

chess set made of toilet paper by prisoner

This exhibit highlights the ingenuity and resourcefulness of inmates, as well as the therapeutic and rehabilitative potential of art in correctional settings.

An exhibit at the prison museum features a remarkable tabletop, crafted from weapons seized from inmates.

table top made of shanks

Under the watchful eyes of prison staff, inmates themselves assembled this unique piece, using materials collected by Warden Wayne K. Patterson.

It served as a coffee table in the warden’s office, showcasing the inventive use of confiscated items.

Correctional Evolution

The Correctional Evolution exhibit traces the transformation of prison policies, architecture, and inmate treatment practices over the years.

Through historical documents, photographs, and narrative panels, visitors can explore how changing social attitudes, legal reforms, and advancements in psychology have influenced the penal system.

This is similar to the Glore Psychiatric Museum that we visited in Missouri, as some of the psychological treatments given to patients throughout history would be considered barbaric today.

Notorious Inmates and Famous Escapes

colorados worst murderers at museum
Display about Colorado’s worst murderers

Highlighting the individuals who have become part of the lore of Colorado’s prisons, the Notorious Inmates and Famous Escapes exhibit profiles the lives and crimes of the most infamous inmates, including cannibal Alfred Packer and the “escape artist” Roy Gardner.

escape ropes in colorado prison museum
Displays in the prison museum include ropes used in attempted prison escapes

It also recounts daring and sometimes successful escape attempts, shedding light on the constant challenges of prison security and inmate ingenuity.

These stories not only tell the about the criminal acts that led to their incarceration but also shed light on the human aspects of their lives, offering a nuanced view of history.

Prison Tattoos

Prison tattoos have a long and intricate history, serving as a form of expression and identity among incarcerated individuals.

Prisoner tattoo display
Display of prisoners with tattoos

Dating back centuries, these tattoos often carry deep meanings, symbolizing affiliations, personal beliefs, achievements, and experiences within the prison system.

The tattoo of a clock with no hands, as shown below, symbolizes time standing still for inmates serving life sentences.

clock with no hands tattoo
Clock with no hands tattoo

In many cultures, they tell stories of survival, loyalty to certain groups, or defiance against the establishment.

Techniques and materials for tattooing in prisons have historically been rudimentary, with inmates improvising tools from available resources like pens, paper clips, and makeshift inks from materials like soot or charcoal.

tattoo machines on display at Colorado prison museum

The prison museum display also showcases examples of these rudimentary tattoo machines made and used by prisoners in the Colorado prison system.

Skyline Drive Built by Prisoners

The museum has details and artwork showcasing how Skyline Drive in Cañon City was built by Colorado prisoners.

In 1905, 60 inmates from the local prison were employed to construct the drive. These inmates received a reduction of 10 days from their sentences for every 30 days of work they completed on the project​

skyline drive canon city prisoners art
Art in the Colorado Museum of Prisons showcasing dinosaur bones and Skyline Drive being built by prisoners
skyline drive canon city
Photo from our drive on Skyline Drive in Canon City

Museum of Colorado Prisons Gift Shop

The gift shop in the prison museum also features items made by prisoners currently in the Colorado prison system.

sign for inmate made hats, shirts, and aprons
Sign for prisoner-made items
inmate made gift shop
Items in the prison museum gift shop are made by inmates in the Colorado prison system
items for sale in gift shop made by prisoners
Yellow tag items are made by the prisoners in the Colorado prison system

The museum explores the role of the Colorado State Penitentiary in the broader context of penal reform in the United States. Through interactive displays and educational programs, visitors can learn about the challenges of rehabilitation and the journey towards more humane correctional practices.