Most of us don’t think about prisons (like Alcatraz, pictured above by ` TheDreamSky) very much. Out of sight, out of mind, they play an all but silent role in our everyday safety.
Consider them for a moment and you realise they are places rich in stories of the best and worst of humanity … tales of crimes, trials, hardship, violence and escape.
You can read about them of course, but to get a feel for prison life you really have to stand inside one – to walk in the shoes of its former inmates so to speak. Here’s our pick of the world’s most storied prisons that you can visit.
Colditz Castle – Colditz (Germany)
A castle has stood on this spot for nearly 1,000 years. Much of its current incarnation is just shy of 500 years old. When the Nazis came to power, they turned the castle from a sanatorium for the wealthy and German nobility into a political prison.
After the outbreak of war in 1939, the castle evolved into a high security prisoner-of-war camp for Allied officers considered as dangerous, an escape risk, or both.
Putting such a collection of young men in one place didn’t turn out to be a great idea – a relatively high percentage of the many escape attempts were successful.
Devil’s Island – Îles du Salat (French Guiana)
Between 1884 and 1946, an estimated 56,000 prisoners were sent to this lush, tropical island off the coast of French Guiana. They say only a quarter of them never left – in part because it was first used as a camp for prisoners with leprosy.
Completely isolated, Devil’s Island was the very definition of a penal colony. Escapes were rarely successful on account of the strong currents and shark-infested waters that surround it.
One of its very few escapees, Henri Charrière earned international notoriety through his memoir Papillon. Steve McQueen played Charrière in the atmospheric 1973 Hollywood adaptation. Sadly the buildings haven’t endured as well the stories.
Elmina Castle – Elmina (Ghana)
This castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trading post to protect its burgeoning colonial operations in what is now Ghana. Elmina is thought to the oldest European building in existence in Sub-Saharan Africa. While ownership switched hands to the Dutch in 1637, its purpose didn’t – it remained one of the key “depots” in the Atlantic slave trade.
On the Gulf of Guinea side stands an infamous opening known as the “Door of No Return”, through which African slaves were loaded onto ships before being transported to European colonies in the New World.
West Virginia Penitentiary – Moundsville (USA)
For 129 years, some of America’s most dangerous and violent men were kept within the imposing Gothic walls of this 1876 prison. Nearly 100 of them were put to their deaths.
In 1986, three inmates were slaughtered during a two-day riot sparked by overcrowding and disease-festering conditions.
Alcatraz – San Francisco (USA)
Has any other prison been the subject of more films, myths, folklore and legend, than “The Rock”? We doubt it. Between 1933 and 1963 it held some of America’s most notorious and dangerous criminals captive.
Today it’s run as a National Park. Access to the island is by private ferry from Pier 33. Be sure to catch one of the free ranger tours. The audio tours are voiced by former inmates and well worth the fee.
Robben Island – Cape Town (South Africa)
Nelson Mandela was held a political prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years (he was held captive for a total of 27 years). There, along with his allies in the ANC and other organisations that challenged South Africa’s infamous apartheid regime, he was kept in harsh conditions and forced to take on punishing hard labour.
Tours depart by ferry from Cape Town Waterfront quarter.
Tuol Sleng – Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
Codenamed S-21, this high school was haphazardly converted to a torture and prison on the day the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975. Some of the worst atrocities committed under Pol Pot’s regime took place here.
Today, it’s a museum documenting the plight of its prisoners and the genocide as a whole. A private tour with a museum guide is well worth the money (less than $10 – negotiable).
Auschwitz-Birkenau – Krakow (Poland)
More than 1,100,000 men, women and children lost their lives at this, the largest of the Nazi’s WWII concentration camps.
Both portions of the facility – the original army barracks converted into a prison in Auschwitz and the purpose-built extermination camp in Birkenau – have been kept as a memorial and stand as a reminder of the worst atrocity in human history.
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