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The Greatest Show on Earth

When the Oshkosh prison opened in 1986, we acted as if Walt Disney had erected it. We fidgeted in long lines outside the newly minted building as if waiting for the circus or the amusement park to open. In a city of only 50,000 residents, 20,000 glutted the queues.

Ryan, a kid from Franklin Elementary, and I, a girl from Oakwood – still just a little country school – were aspiring third graders. We would not officially meet until sixth grade, but of all the Oshkosh landmarks and watering holes, OCI and its grand opening was more likely than not a site where we’d crossed paths.

We both vividly remembered visiting. Who forgets their first stint in prison?

Before filling its three hundred beds with felons, the superintendent had conceptualized this open house. He heralded the prison as “a model not only for the state and the nation but also for the world!”

Come one, come all to the greatest show on Earth!

Beyond the lines, “on the inside,” as they say, the penitentiary reminded me of a fancy barracks for dolls I was touring, having been miniaturized to fit inside. Little penal colonists were included with this prison doll-house set but were still nestled away inside the manufacturers’ box. For now, we inhabited the prison, and the prison belonged to us.

My mom, dad, brother, and I marched reverently through freshly painted cells, a fully loaded weight room, and a library far more modern than our elementary schools’ media centers. I envied the shiny new binding on their books.

Vendors in the lobby sold T-shirts and conductor-style caps emblazoned with black-and-white stripes, stamped OCI, the prison like its own vacation destination. It resembled, at the very least, a three-star resort.

Oshkosh Correctional Institution was a boon for our community, according to the city council, and “an A-plus for Oshkosh,” according to the mayor, all of whom had decided a prison would yield more job stability than a shopping mall that was also proposed. Unlike other industries, prisons were long-lasting and arguably permanent; regardless of fluctuations in the economy, crime could be relied upon. There was no way to eradicate deviance, apparently. Employees in the criminal justice community would be spared any fears of joblessness.

Come one, come all to the greatest show on Earth!

Children, who had surrendered their dreams of Baskin Robbins and video game arcades, eagerly accepted this 45-minute walking tour of OCI as a consolation prize. Eight-year-old kids, like me, used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test their gross motor skills inside the confined space of the prison cells, spacious enough for jumping jacks and the splits but not roomy enough for cartwheels. All of us preferred cells with private toilets, especially my dad, who never censored his outhouse humor in public.

We imagined committing wickedness, stealing money from our parents’ wallets or holding up gas stations with kitchen knives, misdeeds that would land us at this hotel for outlaws. After all, the superintendent promised the inmates keys to their own rooms and the education they deserved.

He even insisted that inmates be referred to on a first-name basis. Of course, this was long before the facility doubled, tripled, and quadrupled into the labyrinth of offenders it is today, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections a much larger beneficiary of state taxes than even the UW System.

Most of the adults interviewed by the Oshkosh Northwestern on the parade of cells in 1986 agreed that $28 million was tax money well-spent. One old codger joked with reporters about the ultra-modern kitchen and cafeteria: “They don’t let people like me come in here to eat, do they?”

Visitors behaved as if the prison tour were sponsored by a travel agency. Maybe they went home and packed their bags, swimming suits and all.

For years afterward, well into middle school at Perry Tipler, several of my classmates wore their prison hats to school, the souvenir headgear crystallizing the OCI open house in our collective memory. All of us had pretended to sleep on the same mattresses, where, days later, real-world hardened criminals drooled, snored, and dreamed alternatively about us, except that they were wishing to be kids on the outside, cluelessly unfettered and free.

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