HAMPTON, Iowa – The welcome doesn’t come with warmth or a smile as guests check in to one of the nation’s oddest bed-and-breakfasts.
“Open up your mouth and rub your fingers through your gums,” Mark Gudmundsen commands in the prisoner processing room of the old Franklin County Historic Jail.
“Put your arms out, fingers spread. Now turn your hands around, palms up, fingers spread.”
Next, there’s frisking, fingerprinting and the snapping of mug shots for those who have willingly surrendered their freedom to experience life behind bars. For $350 a day, they get a skinny mattress on a metal bunk, all meals - without any options - and work assignments that include cleaning the toilets.
Far from typical vacation destinations such as the lake or a theme park, Hampton - a town of 4,000 about an hour and half north of Des Moines - seems an unusual place to vacation. But people actually come to this farming community intent on getting locked up - after swapping their shorts and t-shirts for orange jumpsuits.
No doubt about it, a stay at the Franklin Co. Historic Jail - the lockup hosted its last real inmates 30 years ago - is one of the most unusual ways one could use precious vacation days.
Wearing the uniform of a sheriff’s deputy, Gudmundsen and similarly-attired employees engage their paying guests in what he describes as “play acting.” But the gritty, realistic experience is far from the fun and games of youth.
Five days into his self-imposed, seven-day stretch, William, a guest from Toledo, Ohio, was antsy. Alone in a cell, denied his watch and phone, he relied on the tolling of a church bell to tell the time.
“I’m starting to miss things,” he said. “I miss my cell phone. I miss my dogs.”
“You have no freedom,” he continued.
That lack of freedom, of course, is the cornerstone of the experience.
“You can’t go to the refrigerator whenever you want to. You eat when they decide,” he pointed out.
When food arrives on sectioned metal trays, it is surprisingly tasty. Lunch and dinner, while simple, are actually catered from a nearby cafe.
In between meals, there are chores to be done, including the scouring of the communal toilets and showers.
“I give them the Lysol and tell them how to use it,” Gudmundsen said.
The work, for some, is a blessing since there are countless hours of idle time. Books are allowed, but a TV is only occasionally switched on. A trip to the recreation yard while shackled to other “inmates” provides a bit of fresh air.
“They’ll get bored,” the jail owner observed. “I want them to experience the downtime.”
The day begins at 7 a.m., as a suitable song such as “Jailhouse Rock” or “Folsom Prison Blues” comes blasting through a loudspeaker. From then until lights out at 10 p.m., the routine is tightly controlled, right down to when guests can brush their teeth or take a shower.
“It becomes oppressive,” William bluntly stated.
Gudmundsen requires would-be guests to “apply” through the contact form on his website so he can determine whether they have suitable motivations for staying in his jail. During 2018, what he calls the “Jail Role Play Adventure” will operate on select dates between mid-May and the end of September.
“If you can only take it for half an hour, Mark will let you out,” Ted Storck, a guest from Morris, Minnesota, added for the benefit of anyone thinking about foregoing freedom by choice.