10 jail house hotels, hostels and tours behind bars

25th Aug 2009
10 jail house hotels, hostels and tours behind bars

Spain was the most popular place for Brits to run into trouble with the law, with 2290 arrested there, but when visitor numbers were taken into account, the most likely places to get nicked were the United Arab Emirates (294 arrests) followed by Thailand (202 arrests) and the USA (1534 arrests).

Whilst most of us strive to avoid first hand experience of foreign jail cells, the law abiding public do seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the murky underworld of crime and punishment. If you’d prefer to stay on the right side of the bars on your next trip, travel search site Skyscanner (www.Skyscanner.net) introduces some of the world’s best prison tours, jail hotels and secure institutions for you to do (travel) time in.

1. Alcatraz Island Prison, San Francisco, USA

Probably the world’s most famous prison – ‘The Rock’ is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay in California. Alcatraz is famous for keeping its prisoners locked down; during its 29 years as a prison, no one ever escaped (although two inmates were lost at sea and never found). Take a cell house tour, narrated by former inmates, who talk visitors through their escape attempts, food riots and solitary confinement. Find cheap flights to San Francisco

2. Robben Island, South Africa


From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Robben Island served as a place of banishment, isolation and imprisonment. Today it is a world heritage site and museum and a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom. This craggy island just off the cost of South Africa was where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life, all the while trying to keep “the struggle” against apartheid alive. Tours of the island allow visitors to see the maximum security prison, speak with former prisoners, and they also include a return boat trip across Table Bay. Find cheap flights to South Africa

3. San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

Since the book “Marching Powder” was published in 2003, interest in the notorious San Pedro prison tours has rocketed in backpacking circles. An oddity in itself, the population of San Pedro includes the children of inmates, and prisoners must pay for everything during their sentence including their cell, food and clothes.

The tour is unique in that it’s completely unofficial, but offers visitors a chance to experience a real, live, working prison. However, after recent attention from the Bolivian media, the authorities have clamped down on the tours. With the book now being turned into a Hollywood film by Brad Pitt’s production company, the days of these voyeuristic tours may be numbered. Find cheap flights to La Paz

4. Hostel Celica, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Meaning “The Cell” in English, this former Yugoslavian jail has been converted into a funky hostel and art gallery. Each of Hostel Celica’s twenty cells has original prison features combined with unique art displays. Although it calls itself a hostel, it’s a clean and stylish place with rooms for couples as well as dorms. You’ll need to book in advance if you want to sleep behind bars though, these cells fill up fast. Find cheap flights to Ljubljana

5. Jail Backpackers, Mount Gambier, Australia

Take a tour around this former Australian jail where guests can stay in cells and sleep in beds made by the owner from locally milled pine. The decor has been kept very ‘original’ with heavy, rusty, bolted doors, which adds to the jail house atmosphere. Convicts can eat at the original prisoner mess hall which severs up great value food and on ‘the outside’ – prison guests can escape to the nearby Blue Lake, dormant volcanoes, caves and sink holes. Find cheap flights to Australia

6. Karosta, Liepaja, Latvia

‘Unfriendly, unheated and uncomfortable’ is the strap line of this former KGB jail. It’s an unusual selection of words to chose for attracting tourists, but there seems to be no shortage of inmates signing up for incarceration.

Here, visitors are given the full jail treatment; you’ll get lined up, subjected to a medical examination (verbal only), mug shots are taken and a prisoner passport is issued for your stay. Misbehaviour is punished by a spell in solitary and marches round the courtyard. It’s not noted for the service, food or rooms, but for an authentic prison experience, Karosta is popular with stag groups, corporate bonding events, and ex-cons wanting to relive the bad ol’ days. Find cheap flights to Riga

7. The Liberty Hotel, Boston, USA

If you want to ‘do your time’ in the most luxurious way possible, Boston’s Liberty Hotel is the place to get banged up. What was once the Charles Street jail underwent extensive renovation costing millions of dollars, and transforming the prison that once held Malcolm X into a luxury hotel. However, the walkways and central ‘courtyard’ features mean that the hotel still retains an air of prison style. Find cheap flights to Boston

8. Seodaemun Prison Museum, South Korea

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese built Seodaemun prison in Seoul to torture and execute Koreans who resisted, such as teachers or writers who persisted with their own language and culture.

Jennifer Barclay, author of Meeting Mr Kim: How I went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi says that Seodaemun prison is a chilling reminder of the ‘thought criminals’ who died in the spookily modern cells but also a symbol of the patriotic Koreans who bravely devoted their lives to resisting the Japanese. Now used as a living history education site, Seodaemun prison serves to remind future generations of the noble spirit of Korean independence. Find cheap flights to Seoul

9. Tower of London, London, UK

As well as being a fortress and royal palace, the iconic Tower of London was a prison that was generally reserved for high status or royal prisoners such as Guy Fawkes. Visit the “Prisoners Exhibition” to explore the real experience of the incarcerated, and you can also explore the various towers where prisoners were held, executed or tortured. Find cheap flights to London

10. Devil’s Island, French Guiana

Deemed a “prison in paradise” Devil’s Island in idyllic French Guiana formed part of the South American penal colony in which thousands were condemned to hopeless misery on this rocky, palm-covered island which was one of the most infamous prisons in colonial history. In 1952 the prison was closed, but visitors can still tour the island and view the remains of various cell blocks, courtyards and punishment houses, but for the most part, the island has become a paradise once again. Find cheap flights to French Guiana


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