Aug 3, 2010 2:16:08 AM
Prison tours: a taste of life behind bars
Usually people will do anything to get out of jail, but with prison tourism on the rise, folks are now paying to get in. Defunct prisons all over the world have found a second life by operating as tourist attractions, museums and even hostels, offering everything from spooky evening tours by candlelight to the chance to stay overnight in a cell. (And, of course, a gift shop. Don’t forget that souvenir shiv for your auntie.)
If you’ve always wondered what life is like on the other side of the bars – and don’t feel like committing a felony to find out – plan a visit to one of these former lock-ups:
US & Canada
Alcatraz, San Francisco, USA – One of the world’s most famous prisons, ‘The Rock’ is set on a small island in San Francisco Bay, surrounded by the dangerous currents which gave the prison a reputation for being inescapable. Former inmates include celebrity crims such as Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud. It’s one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions, so you’ll need to book your tour a few weeks in advance.
Eastern State Penitentary, Philadelphia, USA – Also once home to Al Capone (he got around), Eastern State opened in 1829 as one of the world’s earliest modern prisons. Inmates were kept in separate cells built along an innovative, radial ‘wagon-wheel’ design that was meant to encourage silent reflection and solitude as the means to rehabilitation. Besides special guided tours, there are also rotating art installations and a restored synagogue with an exhibit on Jewish life at the penitentiary.
Ottawa Jail Hostel, Ottawa, Canada – The Carleton County Gaol, Ottawa’s first stand-alone jail, opened in 1862 and operated for 110 years. After some renovations, it was reopened in 1973 as a youth hostel, the only one in North America that’s in a former prison. Finding the twin cells too cramped? Upgrade to the Warden’s Quarters.
Old Melbourne Gaol, Melbourne – Built in 1841 from local bluestone, this imposing prison in downtown Melbourne was the final home of famous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, who was hanged here in 1880 (his death mask and revolver are on display here). See their website for information on ‘haunted’ night tours and live performances.
Port Arthur, Tasmania – Once known as Van Dieman’s Land, Tasmania was home to one of Australia’s most notorious penal colonies: Port Arthur. Founded in 1830 on a remote peninsula connected to Tasmania by a thin isthmus, Port Arthur was home to the ‘worst of the worst’ until it closed down in 1877. Port Arthur has over 30 historic buildings to explore and recently received a Unesco World Heritage listing along with several other historical convict sites around Australia.
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland – First built in 1796, this prison has been witness to some of Ireland’s most important – and most tragic – historical events, including the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising for Irish independence. Éamon de Valera, later prime minister and then president of Ireland, was the last person to be released when it closed for good in 1924.
Karosta Prison, Liepāja, Latvia – This naval port prison, built around 1900, was once used for military detention in Tsarist Russia, then later by the Soviets and the Nazis. Normal folks can take the regular tour or even stay overnight in one of the dismal cells, but those ‘brave enough to do it’ can sign up to be treated like an actual prisoner for a few hours or even an overnight stay (no refunds if you decide you want early parole).
Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam – This former French prison dates back to 1886, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. It was later used by the North Vietnamese Army to house American POWs during the Vietnam War, who gave the prison its most famous nickname: the Hanoi Hilton. Former presidential candidate John McCain spent several years there after his plane was shot down during a bombing run.
Seodaemun Prison, Seoul, South Korea – Opened in 1908 when Korea was under Japanese rule, this prison was built to accommodate 500 inmates but saw as many as 3000 packed in at once during the height of the anti-Japanese protests in 1919. Approximately half of the complex’s original buildings have been preserved as a museum, with photo and video displays detailing the horrific conditions that the thousands of Korean freedom fighters imprisoned here had to endure.
Done any ’soft time’ at any of these prisons, or others we didn’t mention? Tell us about it in the comments!