Tourism Beyond Bars

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Simple definition of prison from Mr Goog reads:

A building to which people are legally bound as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial.

What differs a prison from a jail then? These two terms, originally carry different meanings with the latter houses convicted criminals for a shorter period of time. It is smaller in size thus provides less amenities compared to a prison. However, they can sometimes be used interchangeably. Penitentiary and correctional facility are a few other names used to describe a prison. With crime rates on the rise around the world, many new prisons were opened to cater to the demands for more inmates as well as to provide better facilities to them.

With the existence of those new and modern prisons, many older prisons have ceased operations and turned into tourist attractions. Money spent for the upkeep of those prisons to better equip the flocks of tourists who seek to experience the grim life behind bars when one was merely identified by numbers rather than his real name. I could imagine the grisly pictures of the interior of a prison, from the cells to the dining hall to the room of death when it existed to serve its purposes. And now, many of those old prisons are more of an object of history and luckily that is the value sought after by travelers. And here is the short list of 10 former prisons and detention centers around the globe which are opened for tours. The list was happily acquired from CNN Travel Edition and arranged in no particular order.

Alcatraz, US

Top of the list of the to-tour prisons is none other than The Rock or formally Alcatraz. Its original name given by a Spanish seafarer who founded this tiny island in the 18-century was The Isle of Pelicans, which sounded like alcatraz, a type of bird in Spanish. It's located on an island with the same name in San Francisco Bay, California. This facility was a maximum security prison which simply translates to no-breakout level of security.

Former famous inmates of Alcatraz include Alphonse 'Scarface' Capone aka Al Capone; the Chicago crime boss, George 'Machine Gun' Kelly; a bank robber, bootlegger and kidnapper, Robert 'Birdman of Alcatraz' Stroud, Alvin Karpis, Roy Gardner, and Henry Young among other tough prisoners. Alcatraz, as an island or the prison itself have appeared more in pop culture than any other penitentiaries. Maybe Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and The Rock (1996) were just two of the better known movies filmed around this famous island.

Buy your ticket to Alcatraz by joining Alcatraz Cruises' tour and be sure to read a few of its history before setting foot onto the island. The knowledge will add more fun to the trip for sure.

[Photo credit: National Park Service, USA]

Old Melbourne Gaol, Australia

I'd seen one of the former inmates of Old Melbourne Gaol while visiting Sydney's Madame Tussaud's not so long ago. I mean his wax model, not the real him of course. Ned Kelly must have been a famous criminal who was also hailed as hero by some in Australia during his lifetime that deserved him a wax model. In whatever way people remember him, he met his maker while detained inside this prison. For 87 years since its opening in 1842, this old gaol complex housed inmates of many criminal backgrounds from brutal murderers to petty offenders and homeless citizens.

Find out how your time in Melbourne can be spent in this old prison located right in the center of the city. I think the best way to experience the Gaol's grim stories is by taking the night tour.

Devil's Island, French Guiana

As its name implies, this penitentiary building located on an island (Devil's Island) in French Guiana was deemed inescapable, just like Alcatraz. It is surrounded by dangerous waters full of sharks and strong currents. For inmates detained here between 1852 and 1953, nothing was really impossible here. For most prisoners held there, it was their life at stake.

From records, there were several escape attempts with both successful and unsuccessful results. The most famous, successful one should be the escape by Clement Duval in 1901. After escaping the prison and island, he fled to New York and lived there for the rest of his life.

More of this island and its turbulent past can be experienced hands-on by joining some cruises or tours in this South American region.

Oxford Castle, England

Little known about this castle which is located in the well known university town of Oxford. Built in 1071 AD with heavy influences of the Saxon architecture, the castle contained a prison within its compound which served as a place of incarceration for political prisoners during the English Civil War by King Charles. Among the condemned who spent their life behind bars in this castle prison were father killer, Mary Blandy and Anne Green, an innocent convict who miraculously survived hanging. I'm wondering how these two female prisoners can brutally outperformed bad guys in England from that era. Any escapees? Never heard one.

For more tales of murder, romance, betrayal, and execution of those former inmates of Oxford Castle, this tour is a perfect choice.

State Prison of East Jutland, Denmark

Next, we fly to northern Europe into the country of delicious pastries, Denmark. In the city of Horsens, about 200 km from Copenhagen, lies its state prison called Statsfængsel. Jens Nielsen and Peter Lundin must have been two of the more famous inmates of this prison. Nielsen was the last criminal to be sentenced to death for attempted murder in Denmark when he was beheaded in 1892. On the other hand, Lundin the mass murderer, is kept captive till today at another prison in the Scandinavian country. Escape story for this prison belonged to one Carl August Lorentzen, once a safe cracker turned burglar. He fled this prison by digging 18-meter long tunnel but only to be recaptured days later.

More info on this prison can be found here. Materials and historical artifacts on Horsens and the prison are put together at Horsens Museum, located just outside the prison walls.

Eastern State Penitentiary, US

If its sole purpose was to break one's mentally, solitary confinement did its job well. For penal reform, not really. Welcome to the home of total solitary confinement, the most brutal kind of mental torture one can have in a prison lockup. This practice was started here at the Eastern State Penitentiary, once a supermax detention facility in Philadelphia.

It used to be the most famous and expensive prison in the world. With strict disciplinary requirement and state-of-the-art architecture of that time, it was the world's first true penitentiary. Among famous inmates held in here were Al Capone, the all-time America's Most Wanted (I guess before he was sent to The Rock) and "Slick Willie" Sutton, a bank robber. Escape? Don't dream about it.

To get a spooky experience inside this real, abandoned prison at night, Terror Behind the Walls would be a good one.

Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland

When visiting Dublin, the capital of Republic of Ireland, other than going back to the middle ages at Dublin Castle and taking a stroll around Spire of Dublin monument, one can take a little trip not far from the city center to Kilmainham Gaol. The prison was built in 1796 and had become a symbol of Irish nationalism under the rule of British empire. Many Irish rebellions were captured by the Brits and detained here. Irish Parliamentary Party leader, Charles Parnell was one of them but Eamon de Valera was the more famous inmate at Kilmainham. He led to the country's independence from Britain and won the Irish Civil War later. Execution of prisoners by public hangings were common. Gallows were erected in front of the prison complex as death sentence for murderers and robbers.

Now, Kilmainham is a huge museum. It contains heritage of Ireland that one may find it interesting.

Port Arthur, Australia

Tasmania, Australia. It's where UNESCO's World Heritage site Port Arthur is located. With several prisons across the country, Australia seemed to be a land of convicts once during the colonial era. Port Arthur's prison known as Separate Prison was in operation from 1830 until 1877. Almost two decades after it first opened its door to prisoners, the prison management changed the punishment method from flogging to solitary confinement. The switch from physical to mental punishment was to promote repentance to convicts. However, it is said that Port Arthur is known more for its restless souls of the dead since there are about 1500 graves without mark were recorded.

If you want to challenge yourself after hours looking and reading on the history of Port Arthur's ruined prison buildings, join the Ghost Tour which runs almost every night. Whether there are ghosts or not in Port Arthur, it's for you to find out the truth. For those who want to get closer to the roaming spirits of Australia's few most haunted buildings, join this tour instead. You'll get to experience ghost hunting using professional scientific equipment built for that purpose.

Hostel Celica, Slovenia

By 1882 during the Austro-Hungarian period, Hostel Celica was formerly a military prison within military barracks in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The prison was mostly used to keep prisoners of war before Yugoslavia was formed after the collapse of Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1993, the military barracks and its whole area was turned out to be an art square or gallery. After further refurbishment to the prison cells, Celica was reopened to public in 2003 providing reasonably-priced hostel accommodation mostly to tourists.

Robben Island, South Africa

Looking at the beautiful setting of Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa with Table Mountain in the background, I couldn't get to believe its past as a place to keep prisoners away. It existed as an island prison throughout the 17th and 20th century and used to put political prisoners in exile.

The most famous South African revolutionist who fought against the apartheid, Nelson Mandela was once detained on Robben Island for 18 years to complete his 27 years behind bars. That was the price he'd got to pay fighting for the freedom of his country. After his release, he became the President which he well deserved. As the result of the independence, Robben Island too was listed as a World Heritage site, a symbolic to the victory of democracy against racism and oppression.

A museum on the island keeps the events of what happened there during those painful years in the history of South Africa. More information on Robben Island can be found here.

Closer to home

Last but not least, I should not forget the one in my own backyard. Although it's almost vanished to make way for Bukit Bintang Triangle City, Pudu Prison which has long been vacated (since between 1995 and 1996) and in 1997, the main gate was opened to public contained a lot of memories to the former inmates, their families and prison warders. Once Malaysia's most-wanted notorious criminal in the early 80s, Botak Chin had his last day in this prison as well. He was executed by hanging in 1981. The history of the jail complex started way back to year 1891 when Malaya (the then name for Malay Peninsula) was under the British administration. Constructed in phases on a former Chinese cemetery ground using workforce from the convicts, it was finally completed in 1895. At the time of writing, what left of the century-old prison is only the main gate and small part of its front wall.

Also check out Jerjak Island, which used to be a temporary detention island.

In memories of Sergeant 1025 of Taiping Gaol. Al-Fatihah...

Filed Under: Rest of the World

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