Doin' Time at the Blue Mist

Prison-adjacent motel is Florence's funkiest, bar none

Because of the limited focus of the segment, many viewers came away with theimpression that the place was a sort of Heartbreak Motel catering almost exclusively to prisoners' loved ones. In one interview, a former prison guard tells of falling in love with an inmate half her age. Dismissing the motel as "the cheesiest place I've ever seen," another woman spends her camera time philosophizing about love separated by bars.

Some years back, the Tempe woman we'll call Kelly got to know the Blue Mist during repeated visits to Florence; a young friend was serving time after killing a teenage boy during a gang brawl. Asked about her memories of the Blue Mist, Kelly unwittingly apes the women in the film: She uses the motel as a conversational springboard torecount her relationship with the prisoner--who, of course, had gotten a raw deal.

Pressed for specific memories of the motel, Kelly admits that she partied so much back then that she can't recall much of anything. She now theorizes that's probably how she wound up involved with people who were being sent to prison in the first place.

"I do remember sitting in the car out in the Blue Mist parking lot at dusk one evening," she says. "It was just starting to get dark, and I could see the lights in the cellblock. Then someone at the prison started playing a saxophone or trombone. Very bluesy--just the sort of music you'd use for a soundtrack if that scene was in the movie.

"To me, that moment was the Blue Mist."
Kelly lost touch with her friend shortly afterward, when she left the Valley to attend an out-of-state school. When her friend was finally released some years later, she dodged his efforts to reestablish the friendship. She has not seen the friend or the Blue Mist Motel since.

Armed guards, ambulances, prison romance--overimaginative guests can be forgiven for drifting into True Detective-type daydreams during their Blue Mist sojourns. Florence is not exactly a tourist destination. The motel's literature promises "nearby" cocktail lounges as a top local attraction--and the short list of entertainment possibilities rapidly goes downhill from there. Other suggested activities? Golf and, perhaps tellingly, a visit to Phoenix or Tucson, both only an hour away.

Still, Florence's array of tourist attractions is not quite as limited as the Blue Mist's promotional literature might lead one to believe.

There is, of course, the Prison Outlet store, which opened last August on an otherwise vacant lot cater-cornered from the motel and facing the prison. Housed in a building that resembles a theme-park saloon, the incarceration emporium carries a wide variety of inmate-manufactured goods, ranging from clothing and mattresses to gag tee shirts and a painting of a topless hitchhiker.

Much of the store's merchandise is virtually indistinguishable from what you'd find in a high school crafts fair. But the thrill of owning string art, macrame or greeting cards featuring Peanuts knockoffs made by the very hands that held the gun, wielded the knife or gripped the steering wheel of the getaway car is evidently a big draw for many souvenir hunters. In fact, on a recent afternoon, so many tourists are rummaging through the tiny store that the overworked cashier receives a helping hand from a heavily tattooed "assistant." He's--gasp!--an actual prisoner from across the street.

Afraid the folks back home won't believe you actually shopped 'til you dropped in a prison gift shop? Sorry, but they'll just have to take your word for it. Because of tight security around the prison, Florence is the town that Kodak Moments forgot. Make the mistake of whipping out a camera, and you're sure to be loudly reminded by the occupants of every third pickup or Bronco that passes that shooting pictures of the prison is forbidden.

After stashing gift-shop loot--and cameras--back in their motel rooms, rattled crime buffs can proceed to the Pinal County Historical Society Museum. Aimed at old-line crime aficionados who sniff at the idea of prison gift boutiques, the museum is home to a death-penalty exhibit that's so controversial, it's reportedly off-limits to visitors whenever an execution rolls around.

Highlights of the cavalcade of capital punishment include a series of hangman's nooses mounted on plaques; a picture of the hangee is mounted in the center of each noose. Of particular interest is the horrific plaque in which photos of four Asian men are clustered within one shared noose; as foreigners, the quartet evidently didn't warrant separate nooses.

Also of interest is the loop of hemp that claimed the life of obese murderess Eva Dugan in 1930. Dugan was simultaneously strangled and decapitated as she plunged through the gallows floor, and her grotesque exit helped usher in Arizona's use of the gas chamber.

As a final stop on Florence's crime tour, thrill seekers may be tempted to drop in to the historic county courthouse, the ornate citadel of justice where the fates of more than a few inmates of the state prison have been sealed. The entryway to the old building recently has been transformed into a makeshift visitors center, and the only decision hanging in the balance on a recent afternoon was where a couple of older tourists should eat dinner that night.

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