Murder, torture and tales of devastation, the world’s most notorious former prisons provide a sombre and sobering experience as their tales of tragedy are recited. Yet many of these once-horrifying places now stand as a testament to some of history’s darkest periods and as such are now popular and fascinating places to visit.
So if you’re interested in these most notorious tales of life behind bars, then you can follow in the footsteps of the world’s most high profile prisoners, both real and fictional. From the Romans, through the Middle Ages and the slave trade up to today’s hardened criminals, this list of old famous jails to visit will help you find out more about these historical sites.
Some of these prisons were home to hardened criminals, others to political prisoners while some of the places featured on this overview of famous world prisons were used as the location for famous fictional tales of incarceration.
With this list of the most famous prisons in the world you can find out more about the history behind each location. By exploring these famous and infamous prisons you can discover the most fascinating, gruesome, dark and dangerous penitentiaries in the world.
Among the best known prisons in the world, Ohio State Reformatory is famous as the penitentiary where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. OSR was originally intended for first-time offenders to be humanely rehabilitated and the architecture was supposed to ‘encourage inmates back to a rebirth of their spiritual lives… away from their sinful lifestyle and toward repentance’ but it very quickly became home to the very worst criminals in the American penal system. Described variously as ‘brutal’, ‘inhumane’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘unfit for human habitation’, OSR, which closed as recently as 1990, has a dark yet fascinating history brought to life by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. Self-guided tours of the infamous prison are available but we’d suggest one of the guided tours including the Hollywood Tour where you’ll see Warden Norton’s office, the Parole Board room and Andy Dufresne’s Rita Hayworth-covered escape tunnel.
Designed by famed prison architect and Cleveland native Levi Scofield and built between 1886 and 1910, Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio is a magnificent building. It crosses three architectural styles – Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne – and is best known as the prison where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed.
OSR was originally intended for first-time offenders to be humanely rehabilitated and the architecture was supposed to ‘encourage inmates back to a rebirth of their spiritual lives…away from their sinful lifestyle and toward repentance’ but it very quickly became the domain of the very worst criminals in the American penal system.
Described variously as ‘brutal’, ‘inhumane’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘unfit for human habitation’, OSR, which closed as recently as 1990, has a dark yet utterly fascinating history that is brought to life thanks to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.
Self-guided tours of the infamous prison are available but we’d suggest one of the guided tours including the Hollywood Tour where you’ll see Warden Norton’s office, the Parole Board room and Andy Dufresne’s Rita Hayworth-covered escape tunnel. You’ll also see the cell block used in Harrison Ford’s Air Force One.
The West Tower Tour gives you the view from the Guard Tower and the numerically-assigned cemetery and you can walk the length of the world’s largest freestanding steel cell block during the the East Cell Block Tour. The behind The Scenes Tour takes you down into the sub-basement, into the yard where Andy and Red would sit and talk and you’ll hear gruesome stories of inmate punishment, of deplorable conditions, brutal guards, inedible food, rats and disease as well as ‘the sweatbox’ and ‘the hole’…
One of the most popular tours at OSR is Paranormal Penitentiary created by Hollywood FX maestro Robert Kurtzman and there are also night-time ghost hunts. Visitors have long-claimed to have seen and heard ghostly screams, voices and visions of cons and even the warden and his wife who was brutally murdered by two escapees in the late 1940s.
If you’re looking for one of the world’s best prison tours, come and visit Red, the only guilty man in Shawshank.
Devil’s Island in French Guiana was perhaps the most brutal, feared and horrific penal colony in the history of incarceration. The government of Emperor Napoleon III opened the colony, made up of several small islands on the mainland and offshore known as Île de Salut, in 1852 and it was synonymous with horrendous cruelty. The prison was intended for the exile of French political prisoners (but was extended to house hardened thieves and murderers) and was made up of Île Royale, the reception centre where 2,000 ‘thin-lipped, hollow-eyed’ prisoners who, Dante-esque, had long since given up all hope and Île Saint-Joseph, known as ‘Reclusion’, or the place where prisoners were sent to solitary confinement for escape attempts and offences in total silence and virtual darkness, some for up to five years. Around 80,000 of France’s worst criminals who took the gruelling 15-day boat trip from Marseilles in below-deck cages passed through Devil’s Island, the vast majority of whom never returned home. Huge numbers died of disease, starvation and absolute brutality and those who completed their sentences were banished from France, forced to stay on the island. Later in the operational timeline prisoners were allowed back to the motherland but it’s estimated that less than 2,000 returned alive. The French stopped sending prisoners to the islands in 1938 and the ‘toughest penal colony of all time’ closed permanently in 1953. Today, tours to the islands are available by boat from Kourou on the mainland although Île du Diable remains closed to the public (but visible from the boats). The prison buildings on the other islands have been converted into museums and attract thousands of tourists each year.
Devil’s Island in French Guiana was perhaps the most brutal, feared and horrific penal colony in the history of incarceration. The government of Emperor Napoleon III opened the colony, made up of several small islands on the mainland and offshore known as Île de Salut, in 1852 and it was synonymous with horrendous cruelty.
The prison was intended for the exile of French political prisoners (but was extended to house hardened thieves and murderers) and was made up of Île Royale, the reception centre where 2,000 ‘thin-lipped, hollow-eyed’ prisoners who, Dante-esque, had long since given up all hope. Île Saint-Joseph was known as ‘Reclusion’, or the place where prisoners were sent to solitary confinement for escape attempts and offences in total silence and virtual darkness, some for up to five years.
Île du Diable was for political prisoners including Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly accused of selling secrets to the Germans in 1895 and the island’s most celebrated inmates, Henri Charriere, otherwise known as Papillon and forger Louis Dega.
Around 80,000 of France’s worst criminals who took the gruelling 15-day boat trip from Marseilles in below-deck cages passed through Devil’s Island, the vast majority of whom never returned home. Huge numbers died of disease, starvation and absolute brutality and those who completed their sentences were banished from France, forced to stay on the island. Later in the operational timeline prisoners were allowed back to the motherland but it’s estimated that less than 2,000 returned alive.
Spoken of in reverential tones by the French underworld, Devil’s Island was dubbed the ‘green hell’ and in a 1938 book by inmate René Belbenoît who managed to escape to the USA, he called Devil’s Island the ‘dry guillotine’ because prisoners endured a living death.
The French stopped sending prisoners to the islands in 1938 and the ‘toughest penal colony of all time’ closed permanently in 1953.
Today, tours to the islands are available by boat from Kourou on the mainland although Île du Diable remains closed to the public (but visible from the boats). The prison buildings on the other islands have been converted into museums and attract thousands of tourists each year.
Chateau d’If stands on a tiny, three hectare island in the Bay of Marseille and as one of the world’smost famous historic prisons it has been described as France’s Alcatraz. It was built in 1524 on the orders of King Francis I, the fortress soon became a virtually inescapable prison due to its location and the fast-moving currents that rendered even the strongest swimmers unable to make the 1,500m swim. Described as a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners (including 3,500 Huguenots) as well as murderers, rapists and thieves, conditions were renowned as some of the most harsh and brutal in all of France. The prison did retribution, not rehabilitation and prisoners, many of whom were chained to the walls, died of neglect and subsequent insanity. One inmate who is often quoted – wrongly – as spending time in this notorious jail was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, possibly an Italian nobleman, possibly Philippe, the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV or possibly a prisoner called Eustache Dauger but even today, his true identity stays a mystery. Chateau d’If became world famous with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844. Today the prison museum attracts thousands of visitors every year with tours culminating in the cell named after Dantès with a small fissure in the wall from where he was said to have escaped.
Île d’If (Island of Yew Trees) is a tiny, three hectare island in the Bay of Marseille and the Chateau d’If has been described as France’s answer to Alcatraz. It was built in 1524 on the orders of King Francis I who wanted to defend the mainland from potential water-based onslaughts although it never actually had to dispel an advance. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V prepared an attack on Marseille in July 1531 but abandoned his plan soon after.
The fortress soon became a virtually inescapable prison due to its location and the fast-moving currents that rendered even the strongest swimmers unable to make the 1,500m swim. Described as a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners (including 3,500 Huguenots) as well as murderers, rapists and thieves and conditions were renowned as some of the most harsh and brutal in all of France. The prison did retribution, not rehabilitation and prisoners, many of whom were chained to the walls died of neglect and subsequent insanity.
Famous inmates included Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans who was known as Philippe Égalité, early French Revolution leader and renowned ladies’ man Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau and Paris Commune leader Gaston Crémieux who was executed by firing squad there in 1871. One inmate who is often quoted – wrongly – as spending time at Chateau d’If was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, possibly an Italian nobleman, possibly, Philippe, the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV or possibly a prisoner called Eustache Dauger but even today, his true identity stays a mystery.
Chateau d’If was a notorious prison in its own right but it became world famous with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844. It’s the tale of sailor Edmond Dantès who was wrongly accused of treason and spent 14 years at Chateau d’If before a daring yet ultimately successful escape.
The prison was demilitarised and closed on September 23rd 1890 and due to its infamy as a famous prison and also as the setting for one of literature’s great novels, the museum attracts thousands of visitors every year with tours culminating in the cell named after Dantès with a small fissure in the wall from where he was said to have escaped.
In any list of the world’s most famous prisons, Alcatraz comes in every top five alongside the like of the Tower of London, Robben Island, Devil’s Island and the Bangkok Hilton. Alcatraz operated as a maximum high-security federal prison from August 1934 until March 1963. The buildings were modernised in the early 1930s to meet standards for America’s new state-of-the-art penitentiaries and on 11th August 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived from the notorious Leavenworth in Kansas. Average population numbers hovered around 260 – 275 (always one man to one cell) out of a capacity of 336 and living conditions were said to be better than other prisons but make no mistake, it was a grim, utterly inhospitable place where only food, clothing shelter and medical care were rights. Everything else was earned. Alcatraz was home at one time or another to some of America’s most notorious felons including Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Alvin Karpis. Today, Alcatraz is a public museum and one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions, attracting around 1.5 million visitors a year. The tour offers a fascinating and sometimes gruesome journey through the history of Alcatraz including Al Capone’s cell and the Cellhouse Audio Tour is narrated by former inmates, guards and staff and includes tales of escapes, riots, the Battle of ’46 and surviving solitary.
Alcatraz Island was the site of a notoriously harsh prison based off the coast of San Francisco, California, this isolated position earning it the name of “The Rock”. However, prior to becoming a prison, Alcatraz Island had a long history as a military base.
Initially discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1775, Alcatraz Island was first used by the US military in 1853, when it established a base there, transforming it into Fortress Alcatraz. This heavily fortified structure was completed in 1859.
In the course of the American Civil War, the defences of Alcatraz Island were a Union stronghold used to ward off the Confederates. It was also at this time that Alcatraz was first used as a prison, to house Confederate prisoners of war. This military prison continued to expand and was used throughout the late nineteenth century to hold, amongst others, Native American prisoners and those from the Spanish-American War. Over the years, the army kept building more prison sites on Alcatraz Island to hold the increasing number of inmates.
Alcatraz Island’s role as a site of imprisonment was cemented in August 1934. The US government had bought the site the year before and decided to use it as a federal prison, a function it would serve for twenty-nine years.
During this time, Alcatraz held some of the US’s most infamous criminals, including the gangsters Al Capone, Robert Stroud and George Kelly. Many inmates attempted to escape Alcatraz Island and, although no prisoners have “officially” escaped, one of the fourteen recorded attempts resulted in the disappearance of the escapees, Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin. Presumed drowned, their bodies have never been recovered.
Alcatraz Island is today managed by the National Parks Service and offers tours of the old prison. An eerie yet fascinating journey into the workings of this famous site, visitors to Alcatraz Island can make use of audio guides which chronicle its history (45 minutes). The visit usually lasts 2-3 hours. This site features as one of our Top 10 tourist Attractions in the United States.
Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trade settlement on the former Gold Coast – now modern-day Ghana – and it remains the oldest European building south of the Sahara desert. However, Elmina Castle has a far, far darker history. The building itself is a grand, white-washed fortified medieval castle surrounded by blue seas, palm tree-lined beaches and stunning views of the Gulf of Guinea. Its initial purpose was to offer safe haven to trade ships passing between Europe and Africa as well as protecting the Gold Coast’s vast gold reserves but in 1637 everything changed. The infamous Dutch slave trade started and the Europeans traded both commodities and human labour with the Brazilians and the Caribbean. It’s estimated that over 30,000 African men and women passed through Elmina Castle, never to return home. Having no idea what horrors awaited them both on the slave ships and at their final unknown destinations, they were kept in the castle’s dark, airless and swelteringly-hot underground dungeons for up to three months. They suffered the most horrific, humiliating and depraved conditions imaginable, up to 1,500 men and women at a time, shackled and cramped. They would undergo torture and indignities of the most base level before passing through the Door of No Return and onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean and other Portuguese colonies as well as North and South America. The Dutch carried on until 1814 and in 1872 Elmina Castle came under the auspices of the British Empire until 1957 when the newly-independent nation of Ghana assumed control. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1972, Elmina Castle is a popular tourist destination in Ghana offering daily tours and it is especially popular with African-American tourists looking to connect with their heritage.
Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trade settlement on the former Gold Coast – now modern-day Ghana – and it remains the oldest European building south of the Sahara desert. However, Elmina Castle has a far darker history.
The building itself is a grand, white-washed fortified medieval castle surrounded by blue seas, palm tree-lined beaches and stunning views of the Gulf of Guinea. Its initial purpose was to offer safe haven to trade ships passing between Europe and Africa as well as protecting the Gold Coast’s vast gold reserves but in 1637 everything changed.
The infamous Dutch slave trade saw the Europeans trading both commodities and human labour with the Brazilians and the Caribbean and it’s estimated that over 30,000 African men and women passed through Elmina Castle, never to return home.
Having no idea what horrors awaited them both on the slave ships and at their final, unknown destinations, they were kept in the castle’s dark, airless and swelteringly-hot underground dungeons for up to three months. They suffered the most horrific, humiliating and depraved conditions imaginable, up to 1,500 men and women at a time, shackled and cramped.
They would undergo torture and indignities of the most base level before passing through the Door of No Return and onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean and other Portuguese colonies as well as North and South America.
The Dutch carried on until 1814 and in 1872 Elmina Castle came under the auspices of the British Empire until 1957 when the newly-independent nation of Ghana assumed control.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1972, Elmina Castle is a popular tourist destination in Ghana offering daily tours and it is especially popular with African-American tourists looking to connect with their heritage.
Andersonville Prison in Georgia is a National Historic Site dedicated to all American prisoners of war.
Andersonville Prison, also known as Camp Sumter, in Georgia was a military prison established by the Confederates in February 1864, during the American Civil War. In fact, Andersonville was one of the largest of such prisons and, by April 1865, had held over 45,000 Union prisoners of war or ‘POW’s’.
Over its fourteen months of existence under Confederate control, around 13,000 Union POW’s died at Andersonville Prison. This was mostly due to the dire conditions at the institution which led to malnutrition and disease. These soldiers were buried at Andersonville National Cemetery.
Today, Andersonville Prison, together with the National Prisoner of War Museum and the Andersonville National Cemetery form a Nation Historic Site. In addition to exploring the prison itself, visitors can learn about the role of American POW’s in numerous different conflicts and view exhibits detailing their sacrifice.
The Andersonville Prison site also includes the cemetery, which is now a National Cemetery and is still active today as a burial place for war veterans.
The Berlin Stasi Prison was a notoriously brutal Cold War prison in East Berlin from 1951 to 1989.
The Berlin Stasi Prison, also known as the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, was an infamous East German prison run by the East German Ministry of State Security (the Stasi) during the Cold War.
Originally a canteen, in 1945 the Berlin Stasi Prison site became a detainment camp named 'Special Camp No. 3' run by the Soviet Secret Police. Transformed into a prison in 1947, it was taken over by the Stasi, also known as the MfS, in 1951.
Following the Second World War, East Germany and East Berlin were under the occupation of Soviet Russia as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Stasi were the official security forces of this state. The Berlin Stasi Prison in Hohenschönhausen became the remand detention centre of the Stasi, housing anyone considered to be hostile to the communist GDR. Prior to the building of the Berlin Wall, this even included West Berliners, such as the lawyer Walter Linse, who was kidnapped and taken there in 1952.
Once the Wall had been erected, many of the prisoners were attempted escapees. The Berlin Stasi Prison was notoriously brutal, with inmates being kept in tiny cells and subjected to torture to extract confessions.
The Berlin Stasi Prison was disbanded in the autumn of 1989 as the GDR began to falter. It was finally closed on 3 October 1990, when East Germany was once again united with the West. Today, the Berlin Stasi Prison is a memorial to those who were detained there and is a stark reminder of the atrocities carried out during the Cold War. Tours are offered and visitors can see a film about the prison.
Finally demolished in December 2002, Carandiru Prison in the Brazilian city of São Paulo was once South America’s biggest prison and the scene of what became known as the Carandiru Massacre. Today, a new museum documents one of the world’s most brutal prison.
Known locally as ‘Casa de Detencao’ – House of Detention – Carandiru Prison in Brazil’s capital São Paulo was designed and built by Samuel das Neves in 1920 and at the time, it was a state-of-the-art correctional facility that more than met the demands of Brazil’s 1890 Criminal Code.
The first inmates arrived in 1956 and very quickly, overcrowding became a serious issue. At its peak, there were over 8,000 prisoners at Carandiru (with only 1,000 guards for company) and inevitably, gangs seized control of the cell blocks. The medical staff were reluctant to go in which led to untreated conditions, itself leading to infection and death. Malnutrition and starvation were also common and during the 1980s, a severe AIDS epidemic ran rife through the prison.
Eventually in October 1992, a prisoner revolt at the inhumane conditions started the mother of all prison riots. In what became known as the Carandiru Massacre, the Policia Militar do Estado de São Paulo, making little or no effort to try the diplomatic route, stormed the cell blocks, killing 102. A further nine prisoners were allegedly killed by fellow inmates in one of modern Brazil’s darkest hours.
The prison’s death certificate was signed and it was demolished in 2002. Eleven years later, 63 policemen were sentenced to a staggering total of 19,908 years in prison for their part in the massacre.
Today, the Paulista Penitentiary Museum in the north of the city occupies the one remaining cell block and it aims to preserve the prison’s documents that tell the story of one of the world’s most brutal prisons.
The 21,000-piece collection includes detailed paintings, sculptures and furniture made by prisoners in creative workshops as well as objects ‘that help to reassemble the daily lives of the prisoners’ including rudimental tattoo machines and makeshift weapons.
The Changi Chapel and Museum is dedicated to the lives and stories of civilian and Allied prisoners held at the Changi prison camp by the Japanese during WWII.
The Changi Museum in east Singapore is dedicated to remembering the events surrounding the Japanese occupation of Singapore and specifically the lives and experiences of the thousands of civilian and Allied prisoners of war who were held in the Changi prison camp area.
The museum contains a number of different exhibits including an area holding replicas of the famous Changi murals - painted by British POW Stanley Warren during his time in captivity.
Other sections of the Changi Museum focus on the early days of the war, personal possessions donated by the POWs themselves and a selection of other artwork produced by the prisoners. There is also an area devoted specifically to the infamous Changi Prison itself, including an original piece of the prison wall as well as an original cell door. A final exhibition at Changi Museum focuses on the end of the war as well as the many stories of bravery, survival and heroism which were documented during the occupation.
Conditions at Changi during the war were said to be horrendous and the prisoners' experiences were often depicted in murals, sketches and even immortalised in a book by novelist, James Clavell.
As well as the many exhibitions, the Changi Chapel can be found at the Changi Museum and allows visitors to light a candle to remember those who were held at Changi during the war.
Overall, Changi Museum offers a very moving insight into the lives of the prisoners and serves as both a place of remembrance and education.
Clifford’s Tower is a 13th century castle with a diverse history.
Clifford's Tower is a stone structure with a long and varied history which sits high atop a mound in York. In fact, Clifford’s Tower has been everything from a royal mint to a prison and only attained its name in the fourteenth century when it was named after Roger de Clifford who was hanged there in 1322.
The current 13th century structure known as Clifford’s Tower is not the first to be built on this site. Originally constructed by William the Conqueror as a castle in 1086, Clifford’s Tower was destroyed by a rebellion early in its life and rebuilt. However, in the 12th century, Clifford’s Tower suffered destruction yet again. This time it followed the accession of Richard I or Richard the Lionheart. At this time, the Jewish community in York, who had been protected during the reign of his father, Henry II, were persecuted in England.
In 1190, the Jews of York took refuge in Clifford’s Tower, trying to escape a mob. Rather than fall into the hands of this mob, most of the inhabitants at Clifford’s Tower committed suicide and burnt the structure down. When the survivors emerged the following day, they were massacred by the mob. This incident is commemorated by a plaque at the foot of Clifford’s Tower.
Managed by English Heritage, visitors to Clifford’s Tower can climb up its steep and winding steps for beautiful views of York.
First opened in 1845 and based in part on London’s HM Prison Pentonville, Crumlin Road has remained one of the most infamous places of incarceration in the world. Conditions were brutal and oppressive and impoverished children as young as six or seven were held for petty crimes such as stealing food. As with many 19th century prisons, escapes from ‘the Crum’ were common despite earning the somewhat bizarre moniker of ‘Europe’s Alcatraz’ and during the century and a half of the prison’s operation, it was graced with some of Northern Ireland’s most prominent inmates. The Crum finally closed on 31st March 1996 and today, guided tours take you through the underground tunnel from the courthouse across the road to the prison, the Hanging Cell, the Historic Holding Cells, Governor’s Office, Graveyard, C-Wing and the Hospital. You’ll hear stories of political intrigue, famous inmates, escapes and executions. There are also spooky stories of ‘strange’ activity and the Paranormal Tour is not for the faint of heart! Crumlin Road Gaol is a fascinating journey through 150 years of one of Northern Ireland’s most infamous prisons.
First opened in 1845 and based in part on London’s HM Prison Pentonville, Crumlin Road was designed by English architect Sir Charles Lanyon to replace the small county gaol on Antrim Street in Carrickfergus. As was common at the time, the prison’s design ‘encouraged’ the Separate System whereby prisoners were kept apart and in 1846 the first 106 inmates – men, women and children – literally marched 11 miles in chains from Carrickfergus Prison.
Conditions were brutal and oppressive and impoverished children as young as six or seven were held for petty crimes such as stealing food. In 1858 after being sentenced to three months, 13-year old Patrick Magee hanged himself in his cell.
Lanyon’s original designs didn’t include provision of a gallows as until 1901 executions were held in public before crowds of up to 20,000 in front of the prison. After that, an execution chamber was added with the final hanging in 1961 (not just at Crumlin Road but in Northern Ireland) of murderer Robert McGladdery.
As with many 19th century prisons, escapes from ‘the Crum’ were common despite earning the somewhat bizarre moniker of ‘Europe’s Alcatraz’ and during the century and a half of the prison’s operation, it saw some of Northern Ireland’s most famous inmates housed here.
Former Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was held in solitary confinement for a month in 1924 for illegally entering Northern Ireland (and again for the same crime five years later); Loyalist politician and Protestant religious leader Ian Paisley was sentenced to three months for unlawful assembly in 1966; Republican Sinn Féin politician and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness spent time in Crumlin Road in the 1970s; Loyalist Michael Stone was incarcerated here and Bobby Sands was imprisoned there in the late 1970s.
The Crum closed on 31st March 1996 and today, guided tours take you through the underground tunnel from the courthouse across the road to the prison, the Hanging Cell, the Historic Holding Cells, Governor’s Office, Graveyard, C-Wing and the Hospital and you’ll hear stories of political intrigue, famous inmates, escapes and executions.
There are also spooky stories of ‘strange’ activity and the Paranormal Tour is not for the faint of heart!
Crumlin Road Gaol is a fascinating journey through 150 years of one of Northern Ireland’s most infamous prisons.
The stunning Gothic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia set a new standard in prison design and ideology when it opened in 1829, leaning on the principles of reform over punishment. Today the National Historic Landmark is a museum with year-round guided tours (and an audio guide narrated by Steve Buscemi!)
Over two hundred thousand visitors flock to Eastern State Penitentiary in the historic neighbourhood of Fairmount in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania every year to see one of the most historically-important buildings in the entire United States.
After the American Revolution in 1776, the newly-formed nation set out to provide an example to the world in terms of social development and this included prison reform. Eighteenth century prisons were little more than free-for-all holding pens but in 1787, the ambitiously-named Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons proposed a radical, Quaker-inspired idea – ‘to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal's heart.’
Designed by English-born architect John Haviland (for which he was paid $100) to resemble a church in a wagon-wheel design with each wing emanating from a central hub allowing the guards to see all seven wings. ESP was one of the first proponents of solitary confinement with the founding fathers believing that isolated incarceration led to ‘reflection and ultimately penitence.’
It was so far ahead of its time it had central heating, running water and flush toilets before the White House. It was also, at the time, the largest and most expensive public building in the US.
At first, ESP held short-sentence criminals such as horse thieves and pickpockets but like most prisons of the time, it grew into a maximum security prison holding notable names such as infamous bank robber Willie Sutton and the King of the Underworld, Al Capone serving his first ever prison sentence who furnished his cell with antiques and oil paintings!
By the 1960s, the prison was in need of massive investment and 142 years after Charles Williams, prisoner #00001, was admitted, ESP closed its doors for good in 1971.
Today after nature’s attempt to reclaim the land and the removal of hundreds of stray cats who made the abandoned prison home, it’s a museum and tours include the cell blocks, Capone’s cell, art installations and amazing stories of inmate escapes. There is also ‘Terror Behind The Walls’, a serious scarefest including Hollywood-style sets and 200 actors that’s consistently ranked amongst the top haunted attractions in America.
Fremantle Prison in Western Australia is Australia’s largest and best-preserved convict-built prison. Built between 1852 and 1859, you’ll hear stories of inhumane conditions, escapes, floggings and hangings, solitary confinement and the famous (and infamous) men and women who resided here.
Just south of Perth, Fremantle Prison on Western Australia’s Indian Ocean coast is Australia’s (and one of the world’s) largest and best-preserved convict-built prison. It is also the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built by convicts between 1852 and 1859 from limestone quarried from the hill on which it is built, the prison was originally intended for imperial convicts but by 1886, only about 60 were left in a jail built to house a thousand. When Perth Gaol closed in 1888 and the local population grew with the gold rush of the 1890s, Fremantle Prison got busy again.
Prison life was highly regulated with meals being eaten in cells and up until about 1911 prisoner labour was used for much of the city of Fremantle’s infrastructure. Punishment ranged from flogging, time spent in irons, lengthening of sentences, deprivation of visits or what passed for entertainment all the way up to hanging. Forty-four (43 men, one woman) were put to death at Fremantle between 1888 and 1964 – Western Australia’s only lawful place of execution. The last man led to the noose was serial killer Eric Edgar ‘Night Caller’ Cooke, convicted of eight murders and 14 attempted murders.
The decision to decommission the prison was reached in 1983 but it remained in operation until 30th November 1991 when all remaining inmates were transferred to a maximum-security prison at Casuarina, 30km south of Fremantle.
Today, Fremantle Prison is one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions and while entry to the gatehouse is free and includes the Convict Café, gift shop, prison gallery and an interactive visitor centre, there are a number of fascinating, interactive tours.
The Tunnel Tour which takes you on a subterranean boat ride through convict-built tunnels; the Doing Time Tour includes the solitary confinement cells, men’s cell block and kitchens; the Great Escape Tour includes fascinating tales of famous inmates, stories of escape, intrigue and the 1988 riot designed to highlight the inhumane conditions in which the prisoners were kept which led to the prison’s closure and the Torchlight Tour which focuses on the more macabre elements of prison life at Fremantle.
Built by the Dutch in the 1770s, the Maison des Esclaves, or Slave House, on Gorée Island in Senegal is one of the most important monuments to the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade. The infamous Door of No Return marks the final exit point for men, women and children on route to the Americas.
Some academics have argued that Gorée Island – from the Dutch ‘goede reede’, or ‘good harbour’ – was merely one of hundreds of similar incarceration centres from where relatively few Africans (around 25,000) were transported to the Americas. Others have suggested that upwards of 15 million passed through the Door of No Return on Gorée Island.
Regardless of numbers, it remains one of West Africa’s most important monuments to the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade.
The island lies a little over a mile offshore from Dakar’s main harbour and today, over 200,000 people a year make what can almost be described as an homage to the horrifically brutal slave trade as well as paying respects to unknown and unnamed ancestors who made these fateful journeys.
Inside the Slave House, the conditions were as hopeless and as primitive as you can imagine. Twenty men with backs to the wall and chained around the neck were crammed into cells smaller than 3m x 3m and were allowed out once a day. Hygiene was non-existent and men, women and children were wedged into every available space, sometimes for up to three months before departure. Young girls, highly valued by the slave traders for the obvious albeit grotesque reasons, were kept separate and commanded the highest prices.
As if this type of forced incarceration wasn’t enough, when it was time to go the men went to the southern states of the USA, the women to Cuba or Brazil and the children to the West Indies. The separation was absolute.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the tour is the view down the slanting corridor towards the door marked ‘La Porte Du Voyage Sans Retour’ – the trip from which no-one returned. It opened directly onto the sea and once through, you were gone forever.
Thanks to four decades of work by museum curator Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye who sadly died in 2009, the House of Slaves on Gorée Island serves as a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade and today in his memory, visitors can witness the harsh conditions in which thousands, if not millions were incarcerated and then shipped out with no hope of ever coming back.
Built in stages between 1886 and 1901 in downtown Hanoi by the French, Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘Hell’s hole’ – was a place of incomprehensible brutality. Prisoners were shackled by one leg, unable to walk or even stand up; many were kept in tiny, damp, dark and filthy solitary confinement cells and were subject to arbitrary physical and mental abuse including torture, beatings and deprivation of basic human rights like sleep and food. Originally intended for 450 inmates (but by the 1950s was home to over 2,000), Hỏa Lò went through three distinct periods. During the colonial French era, it was known, as all urban French prisons were, as ‘Maison Centrale’ – Central House – and was intended to hold Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence, many of whom were subsequently tortured and executed. After the French suffered their unexpected defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South and Hỏa Lò served as an education centre for revolutionary doctrine and activity. Then came the Vietnam War. The first US prisoner arrived at Hỏa Lò in August 1964 and until 1973, almost 600 American POWs were interred here, including future Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was sarcastically coined – their treatment was horrific and brutal and breached the Geneva Convention to which Vietnam was a signatory. Save for the small southern section, the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and today, the museum focuses predominantly on the French colonial era and has been described as a ‘bare-knuckles recreation of destitution’.
Built in stages between 1886 and 1901 in downtown Hanoi by the French (when Vietnam was still French Indochina), Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘Hell’s hole’ – was a place of incomprehensible brutality.
Prisoners were shackled by one leg, unable to walk or even stand up; many were kept in tiny, damp, dark and filthy solitary confinement cells and were subject to arbitrary physical and mental torture including rope torture, beatings and deprivation of basic human rights like sleep and food.
Originally intended for 450 inmates (but by the 1950s was home to over 2,000), Hỏa Lò went through three distinct periods.
During the colonial French era, it was known, as all urban French prisons were, as ‘Maison Centrale’ – Central House – and was intended to hold Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence, many of whom were subsequently tortured and executed. Inmates were kept in what has been described as ‘subhuman conditions’ but because of the central location, street peddlers could make extra money by tossing opium and tobacco as well as messages over the walls.
After the French suffered their unexpected, blunder-laden and hugely shameful defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South at the 17th Parallel and Hỏa Lò served as an education centre for revolutionary doctrine and activity. Then came the Vietnam War.
The first US prisoner arrived at Hỏa Lò in August 1964 and until 1973, almost 600 American POWs were interred here, including future Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was sarcastically coined – their treatment was horrific and brutal and breached the Geneva Convention to which Vietnam was a signatory – although North Vietnamese propaganda suggested they were treated excellently and the Hanoi Hilton nickname was because it was like a hotel. It wasn’t.
They were interrogated, tortured, chained, beaten and kept in tiny solitary confinement cells but by the early 80s when the Americans had left, the prison’s usefulness was coming to an end.
Save for the small southern section, the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and today, the museum focuses predominantly on the French colonial era and has been described as a ‘bare-knuckles recreation of destitution’. See a gruesome array of chains, shackles, the guillotine and other torture instruments, the cells and the iron doors that were built and shipped over from France.
Horsens State Prison in central Denmark closed its doors in 2006 and was the home of some of the Nordic nation’s most high-profile criminals. FÆNGLSET, the state-of-the-art museum with a staggering collection of items tells the story of Denmark’s most famous prison.
Horsens Statsfængsel – Horsens State Prison – in the central Danish town of Horsens is an imposing building that dominates the entire area. It was opened in 1853 (with sister prison Vridsloselille opening in 1859) after widespread prison reforms were introduced three years earlier.
The original intention of Horsens was to house Denmark’s worst prisoners but relatively soon after in 1875, it essentially became a correctional facility, admitting inmates on shorter sentences for lesser crimes. Unusual for 19th century European and American prisons whereas for the most part it was the other way round.
Conditions were brutal and many of the prisoners decided that an escape attempt or suicide was preferable to staying put. Some even went as far as trying to kill guards or fellow inmates in order to get a death sentence; such was the depth of feeling towards the cold, grey walls.
After the prison closed its door in 2006 (and the inmates were moved to the State Prison of East Jutland), the prison was transformed into an incredible museum taking visitors through more than 150 years of Denmark’s penal history.
See the axe used to behead Jens Nielsen in 1892, the last Dane executed for a crime committed in peacetime. Discover the incredible story of Carl Lorentzen who took a year to dig an 18-m long tunnel under the prison yard and in a Shawshank-esque trick, hid the dirt in his socks, leaving a post-escape note for prison guards reading simply; ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
You’ll also see the huge pants owned by Danish politician Peter Alberti who pleaded guilty to embezzling 18m Krone of government money in 1908 (worth 1.1bn DKK or roughly £130m today) as well as cells through the ages, the biker gang section, the prison chapel and thousands of objects that tell the fascinating story of Horsens through the eyes and ears of the inmates and guards.
One of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, Inveraray Jail on the shore of Loch Fyne is a 19th century prison and courthouse. It has been transformed in to a living museum depicting an often brutal and miserable life behind bars for men, women and children – some as young as seven.
On the shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll sits Inveraray Jail, one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions and one of Europe’s most complete and best preserved 19th century courtroom and jail complexes.
The plans supplied for Inveraray Jail by Scottish architect James Gillespie Graham called for a courthouse and three prisons –for men, women and debtors – but money spoke and one was built to replace the old prison where conditions were horrendous and escapes were so common, the local townsfolk took turns to guard it at night.
Inveraray Jail was completed in 1820 and held men, women and children, both convicted and unconvicted, sane and insane in one block of eight dark, damp cells. Conditions remained grim until prison reforms in the late 1830s required the construction of a new, modern prison.
The new prison was designed to ‘improve the character and maintain the health of its inmates’. All physically fit inmates worked for up to 10 hours a day in their cells making fishing nets and picking oakum from rope, only allowed out once a day to exercise or to use the loo.
An interesting fact about prison life is that hard labour (at Inveraray and elsewhere) included the pointless activity of turning a crank machine. Male prisoners had to turn it 14,400 times a day and warders could make it harder by tightening a screw, hence why prison guards are known as ‘screws’.
Around 4,400 prisoners passed through Inveraray Jail in 69 years and escapes were rare (12 escapees, most were found relatively quickly) since the prison was in such a remote location.
As the town of Inveraray declined, largely due to the disappearance of the fish from the waters from the late 1870s, and with the emergence of much larger inner-city prisons like Barlinnie in Glasgow, Inveraray Jail closed its doors for the last time on 30th August 1889.
Today, the living museum features costumed prisoners and jailers who will regale you with gruesome stories of life at Inveraray Jail in the 19th century. Start at the horrifically-named Torture, Death & Damnation exhibition; walk the corridors of the old prison, meet the prisoners and hear their stories; experience the unbearable tension as sentences were passed in the grand courthouse and experience the new prison. Lie in the hammocks and on the wooden beds, get strapped to the whipping table and find out about the people who were imprisoned, some for stealing a turnip!
The living, breathing museum at Inveraray Jail is a fascinating, interactive and fun journey back in time to experience real prison life in 19th century Scotland.
Kilmainham Jail housed some of Ireland most famous political prisoners.
Kilmainham Jail, also spelt ‘Kilmainham Gaol’, in Dublin was a notoriously fearsome prison housing a mixture of common criminals and high profile political prisoners. Whilst originally built in 1780, the current incarnation of Kilmainham Jail dates back to the 1860s.
By the time it was closed in 1924, Kilmainham Jail had held and been the site of the execution of some of the most famous figures in Irish history, particularly those imprisoned in the fight for Irish independence. For example, after leading the ultimately unsuccessful uprising against the English in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was held at Kilmainham Jail together with 200 of his followers. He was later executed.
Other famous inmates of Kilmainham Jail included Nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, imprisoned there in 1881. In 1916, the members of the Easter Uprising were held there and executed in one of the prison’s exercise yards.
Today, Kilmainham Jail stands as Europe’s largest unoccupied prison. It now acts as a museum, offering visitors the chance to explore its history. Some of the sites can be quite gruesome in nature. In addition to the cells and exercise sections, visitors can see the block on which Robert Emmet was beheaded and the doorway where prisoners were hanged.
La Conciergerie in Paris is a former palace turned prison which now serves as a museum and government building.
La Conciergerie in Paris, France is located on an important site which once formed the seat of the city’s Roman leaders during their occupation of Gaul. La Conciergerie itself originally formed part of thirteenth century Palais de Justice, the royal palace built by King Philip IV. It served this role until the 1350’s, when the French royals moved to the Louvre.
As it ceased being used as a royal residence, La Conciergerie became the site where judicial functions were carried out, a purpose which parts of the palace still fulfil today.
From 1391, La Conciergerie’s judicial function took on a different character as it was transformed into a prison. Thus it remained for centuries, playing its sinister role during the French Revolution as the home of the ominous Revolutionary Tribunal which sent thousands of prisoners to the guillotine.
In the course of the Revolution, La Conciergerie held over a thousand prisoners at any given time. Some of the most famous inmates at La Conciergerie included Francois Ravaillac, the assassin of King Henri IV, imprisoned there in 1610, revolutionaries Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and, most prominently, Queen Marie Antoinette. Each was then executed.
Visitors to La Conciergerie can enjoy both its impressive medieval architecture, such as its large Hall of the Men at Arms and its history, both royal and as an instrument of punishment. Its original torture chambers can still be viewed.
Maitland Gaol was Australia’s longest continuously operating prison and now operates as a museum and tourist attraction.
Maitland Gaol in New South Wales was Australia’s longest continuously operating prison before being closed and reinvented as a museum and tourist attraction.
First opened in 1848, Maitland was finally shut in 1998 as part of a general upgrade to Australia’s prison system. Today, visitors to Maitland Gaol can learn about its vibrant history, which spanned more than 150 years and saw the jail house some of the country’s most notorious felons. As well as exploring the prison itself, there’s information on the jail’s history, past inmates and key events such as protests, riots and attempted escapes.
A self-guided audio tour is available, along with a number of guided tour options.
The Mamertine Prison was an Ancient Roman prison in which Saints Peter and Paul may have been held.
The Mamertine Prison in Rome, also known as Carcere Mamertino, is an ancient prison thought to date back to perhaps as early as the seventh century BC. The Romans continued using the Mamertine Prison throughout the Republican and Imperial eras as late as the fourth century AD, with executions also taking place there.
Christian legend says that the Mamertine Prison was the site where Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated. According to these accounts, Peter managed to create a spring in his cell, allowing him to perform baptisms on his cellmates and guards.
Today, the remains of the Mamertine Prison are found under the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami near the Roman Forum. Dark and dank, the dungeons are accessed via a winding staircase and offer a glimpse into the horrors experienced by criminals of Ancient Rome.
It is also worth noting that, near the Mamertine Prison (some say right next to it) would have been the location of the Gemonian Stairs, also notorious as a site of executions in Ancient Rome.
The imposing bluestone structure of Old Melbourne Gaol opened in 1845 and in the 79 years of its operation, some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals passed through its doors, some never to emerge. Australia’s most famous citizen Ned Kelly – occupier of cell 113 – was convicted of murder and executed by hanging here in November 1880 and other infamous inmates included serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming – suspected by some to be Jack the Ripper – and vicious gangster Squizzy Taylor. In total, over 130 people were hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol and the list of inmates, even by 19th century standards, was decidedly odd. Parts of the structure were incorporated into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the 1970s and today, the three story museum offers visitors a fascinating insight in to the antipodean penal system including the cells filled with letters, memorabilia, personal effects and the gruesome death masks of condemned men and women. See the chilling gallows and regular dramatisations of Ned Kelly’s story and get yourself arrested at the adjacent City Police Watch House complete with a padded cell. Candlelit ghost tours are run throughout the year with some paranormal enthusiasts claiming to have heard female voices – one claimed to have recorded ‘a ghostly figure with a grotesque visage standing in a doorway’ – but evidence is unsurprisingly thin.
The imposing bluestone structure of Old Melbourne Gaol opened in 1845 and in the 79 years of its operation, some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals passed through its doors, some never to emerge. Australia’s most famous citizen Ned Kelly – occupier of cell 113 – was convicted of murder and executed by hanging here in November 1880 and other infamous inmates included serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming – suspected by some to be Jack the Ripper – and vicious gangster Squizzy Taylor.
In total, over 130 people were hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol and the list of inmates, even by 19th century standards, was decidedly odd. Of course the usual rabble of murderers, rapists, arsonists and thieves were ever-present but it also housed children. Some stayed with a convicted parent but in 1857, three year-old Michael Crimmins was sentenced to six months for the crime of being idle and disorderly!
The prison didn’t last long by modern standards and by 1870, plans were afoot to slowly decommission the gaol and relocate prisoners to more suitable locations and it was slowly demolished, closing its doors finally in 1924.
Parts of the structure were incorporated into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the 1970s and today, the three story museum offers visitors a fascinating insight in to the antipodean penal system including the cells filled with letters, memorabilia, personal effects and the gruesome death masks of condemned men and women.
See the chilling gallows and regular dramatisations of Ned Kelly’s story and get yourself arrested at the adjacent City Police Watch House complete with a padded cell.
Candlelit ghost tours are run throughout the year with some paranormal enthusiasts claiming to have heard female voices – one claimed to have recorded ‘a ghostly figure with a grotesque visage standing in a doorway’ but evidence is unsurprisingly lacking.
Old Melbourne Gaol is one of the city’s oldest surviving historical buildings and is a must see on any trip to Melbourne.
A partly-ruined medieval castle built for William the Conqueror in 1071, Oxford Castle transformed into a prison after the English Civil War and visitors can immerse themselves in 1,000 years of mystery, intrigue, escapes, ghosts and brutal jailers as well as the origins of Oxford University.
Built by the Normans in the 11th century for William the Conqueror, Oxford Castle has been in almost continuous operation for 1,000 years. After the English Civil War in the late 1650s it was, like many of England’s urban castles, converted into a prison with a fearsome reputation for brutality; a reputation that endured until it ceased operation in 1996.
The original 11th century earthwork mound was added to with stone fortifications and a stone keep and in 1074, St George’s Chapel was built. It was the first collegiate church in an English castle – in Norman times the canons included scholars in their number - and the chapel is widely believed to be the seed from which the giant learning tree of Oxford University was built. One such scholar was Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth who in 1136 wrote the stories from which the legend of King Arthur emerged.
As was de rigeur in the 17th and 18th centuries, prison warders charged the inmates for their board and lodging and Oxford was no different. For the majority of the 18th century, it was run by two local families but fell quickly into disrepair. The local justices ordered a rebuild in 1785 which included a Debtor’s Tower and it was finished by 1805. Further additions and renovations over the next century were required and in 1888 after the prison reforms it became HM Prison Oxford.
Today, visitors on the guided tour – hosted by costumed guides – can explore the original castle, climb down into the 900 year-old crypt and hear stories of public hangings (the last of which was in 1863), the brutality of 18th and 19th century prison life, the Debtor’s Tower and the origins of the phrase ‘to be sent down’.
*SPOILER ALERT* When a prisoner was ‘sent down’ it meant he or she was sent down a tunnel leading from the County courtroom into Oxford Prison. There are only two of these tunnels in England.
Although there is no hard evidence, Oxford Prison is believed by some to be one of the most haunted places in England and – unverified – reports include ghostly figures wandering through the castle, poltergeist activity, eerie white mists and disembodied footsteps…
Perm 36 is the best preserved of Stalin’s Gulags, near the border with Siberia.
Perm-36 was one of many Gulags established under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin and the best-preserved of its kind. Essentially, Gulags were forced labour or concentration camps for prisoners of the state, including criminals and political prisoners such as human rights activists and anyone deemed to be opposed to the state.
Also known as ITK-6, Perm-36 was established in 1946 near the Russian-Siberian border and was built to hold around a thousand prisoners. Prisoners were forced to work in cutting down trees for use as building materials. Living conditions were dire, with overcrowding and work taking place in all weather. To survive, inmates would have to overcome hunger, brutal treatment and disease.
Perm-36 was only closed down in 1988. In the period after Stalin’s death in 1953, Perm-36 was initially used as a prison for those in his regime convicted of crimes carried out under his rule and later for law-enforcement officials convicted of “traditional” crimes. Political prisoners also continued to be interned there.
Today, the Perm-36 Museum offers tours of the former camp as well as exhibits about its history.
One of Italy’s prison islands, Pianosa sits in the Tyrrhenian Sea and from 1856 until 1998 the penal colony was a prison farm, a sanatorium and also held some of Italy’s most notorious mafiosi…
Nicknamed Alcatraz del Tirreno, or the Alcatraz of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Pianosa sits between the island of Corsica and the mainland and from 1856 until the prison closed for good in 1998, it served as a prison farm, a sanatorium and as home to some of Italy’s most notorious mafiosi.
A penal colony was established on the island by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II who decreed it was an ideal place to isolate, segregate and oversee prisoners and over the next 100 years or so, the numbers of prisoners increased, as did the size of the facilities and it is even home to the largest early Christian catacombs north of Rome.
In fact the island has been inhabited since the Upper Palaeolithic age (between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago) and one of the most famous events in antiquity was when the princeps Augustus banished his grandson Agrippa Postumus there until his death by execution in 14 AD.
In 1872, the inmates were divided up and assigned to small farming communities who cultivated cereals, produced oil and wine as well as tending to pigs, chickens and cattle. From 1884 and due to the island’s healthy climate, Pianosa also played host to convicts with tuberculosis with the jail being divided into the self-explanatory Preventorio, the Sanatorio and the Convalescenzario. After the Germans left post-occupation after WWII, the island returned to its former role as a prison.
The sanatorium that looked after the TB sufferers was transformed into an impenetrable maximum security jail for high-ranking mafiosi such as Pippo Calò, Nitto Santapaola, Michele Greco and Giovanni Brusca and Red Brigade terrorists including Giovanni Senzani, Renato Curcio, Alberto Franceschini and Bruno Seghetti. By 1997, the last of the prisoners was shipped out and the prison closed for good.
The island and it’s quaint port is surrounded by stunning turquoise waters and schools of fish and although you’re not allowed to go there on your own, local tour operators run excursions from Piombino and Elba (limited to 200 people per day). There is also a hotel on the island – Hotel Milena – run by the last of the convicts serving long sentences and you can take a guided tours by bike, horse or on foot.
Tourists come to Pianosa as much for the wildlife sanctuary it has become as the prison and you’ll find some hardcore fans of Joseph Heller’s absurd wartime novel Catch 22 as it’s the fictional setting for the book’s WWII squadron.
Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania grew from a small timber station in 1830 into Australia’s most brutal penal settlements until it closed in 1877. Today it’s ‘Australia's most intact and evocative convict site’ and a must-see on any visit to Tasmania.
Port Arthur is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites, noted by UNESCO as ‘the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts’ and is Tasmania’s premier tourist attraction.
Built in the 1830s from a small timber station in south-eastern Tasmania, the Port Arthur complex is a place of real contradiction. The stunning landscapes and vistas of one of the world’s last remaining wild frontiers gives way to a dark history of the brutal punishment of the most hardened of British convicts who landed here in the mid-19th century.
Originally a hard labour camp staying true to its timber station roots, convicts were forced to cut trees but in 1848, the focus shifted to more psychological punishment. Food was used as a reward and as a punishment and prisoners were kept hooded and silent so they could reflect silently on their crimes. This psychological torture coupled with the fact that there was very little hope of escape drove some inmates to kill other prisoners just to receive the death penalty.
Called the ‘inescapable prison’ since the surrounding waters were reputed to be shark-infested, escape attempts were rare but on occasion, successful and you’ll hear the amazing stories of Martin Cash who escaped in 1842 and George ‘Billy’ Hunt who attempted to flee dressed in a kangaroo hide but was shot as the starving guards tried to supplement their meagre rations.
The prison’s population dwindled and by the 1870s, the inmates that remained were too old, ill or insane to be of any use as an effective labour force and the prison closed its doors in 1877.
The buildings eventually fell into decay but in the 1970s, the government funded the site’s preservation and today you can see over 30 buildings in 40 hectares of landscaped grounds. There are guided tours of the prison buildings, the museum, the Convict Study Centre, Interpretation Gallery and the site of the Dockyard. For the more macabre among you, night-time ghost tours are a spooky highlight.
For additional costs, you can also see the 1,646 graves on the Isle of the Dead where everyone who died in prison was buried and you can take a trip to Point Puer Boys Prison where close to three thousand 9-16 year-old boys were disciplined in the sternest possible ways.
The remains of the Bastille prison can be viewed at Square Henri Galli in Paris.
Some remains of the Bastille, the state prison which was famously stormed thus sparking the French Revolution, can be seen in a small park known as Square Henri Galli in Paris.
A small plaque next to what seems like an innocuous pile of stones marks this out as the remains of one of the most notorious sites in history.
For the original location of this prison, see the entry for The Bastille.
Dutch for ‘seal island’, Robben Island is one of the world’s most famous prisons and is best known as the home to not one but three former South African presidents, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa was a notorious prison, best known for its internment of political prisoners during South African apartheid. Its most famous prisoner - prisoner 466/64 - was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the country’s president.
Robben Island was used as a prison as far back as the seventeenth century, when the Dutch settled on the mainland. Since then, it has been used as a World War II military base and a nineteenth century hospital for the seriously ill, such as patients with leprosy.
However, whatever its other uses, Robben Island was used as a prison in one measure or another until the twentieth century. Even in its time as a hospital Robben Island was prison-like, its isolation ensuring that diseases could not be spread to the mainland. Furthermore, prisoners were kept here even whilst it housed the hospital.
From 1961, the South African government used Robben Island as a prison, housing many political prisoners.
In all, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost 27 years, many of them at Robben Island, together with many other anti-apartheid activists. Robben Island’s prison closed in 1996.
Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage historic site and a museum. A visit to Robben Island is by way of a standardised 3.5 hour guided tour (time includes two 30min ferry rides).
In addition to touring the maximum security prison buildings, the tour includes a 45 minute guided bus ride around the island and interaction with a former Robben Island prisoner. A visit to Robben Island provides a fascinating insight into the island’s history and that of South Africa. It is worth noting however that tours can get fairly crowded.
There are also exhibits at the Nelson Mandela Gateway museum, worth seeing, especially if you can’t make it to the Island.
The Dneprovsky Mine was a soviet prison camp in eastern Russia under Joseph Stalin.
The Dneprovsky Mine was a Soviet prison camp in eastern Russia and is now one of the best preserved of its kind.
Operating between 1941 and 1955, the Dneprovsky Mine was a tin mining site used by Joseph Stalin as one of his infamous gulags.
The gulags were prison camps which housed those who were considered to be ‘enemies of the people’, subjecting them to forced labour. There are thought to have been hundreds of gulags throughout soviet Russia, although few can be found today.
Much of the infrastructure at the Dneprovsky Mine at the time it was used as a gulag is still there today, including watchtowers, huts and barbed wire fences.
The Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg is an 18th century fort turned political prison listed by UNESCO.
The Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost) was the first building or structure built by Peter the Great in the city of St Petersburg.
A giant fortification, the Peter and Paul Fortress was founded in 1703 in order to defend the city from Swedish attack as, at the time, Russia and Sweden were engaged in the Great Northern War. However, it never fulfilled this role, the Swedish having been defeated before managing to reach St Petersburg.
In fact, the most military action the Peter and Paul Fortress saw occurred during the October Revolution of 1917, when it was taken by the Bolsheviks. Prior to this, the Peter and Paul Fortress was already serving as a prison and a military base, having been designated as such from 1721 onwards.
Those incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress were mostly political prisoners including anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Within the Peter and Paul Fortress stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Peter the Great and other Russian leaders are buried.
The Peter and Paul Fortress has been a museum since 1924 and part of the St Petersburg UNESCO World Heritage site since 1990. It contains several small museums and exhibits and also features as one of our top ten Russian tourist attractions.
The Tower of London is a famous fortress and prison originally commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror.
The Tower of London, originally known as the White Tower, was commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror and work on it was underway by the 1070s. It was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century.
The Tower of London was also used as a residence for monarchs of England, and it was traditionally used by monarchs in the run up to their coronation. However the Tower is most famous for its use as a prison.
The Tower of London held prisoners for over 850 years - from Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham who was imprisoned for extortion in 1100 and who managed to escape to infamous East London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in 1952 for going AWOL from the army.
Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I was imprisoned here by her half-sister Mary I. She sat on the steps by the watergate (known now as Traitor’s gate) and wept. She was later forgiven and released.
Only seven people were executed within the Tower’s walls - including Anne Boleyn - but the list of people who at one time or another were imprisoned in the Tower of London reads like a who’s who of 1,000 years of Britain’s history and includes:
William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, Scottish knight in 1305
Richard II of England in 1399
James I of Scotland in 1406
Henry VI of England in 1471
Edward V of England & Richard of Shrewsbury – The Princes in the Tower in 1483
Saint Thomas More, Renaissance humanist in 1534
Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII in 1536
Thomas Cromwell, Reformation advocate in 1540
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1553
Lady Jane Grey, uncrowned Queen of England in 1553
Queen Elizabeth I in 1554
Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, writer, poet and spy in 1603
Guy Fawkes for his part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605
Samuel Pepys, diarist in 1679
Sir Robert Walpole, future Prime Minister in 1712
Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of the Nazi party in 1941
Also at the Tower are mysteries, for example, what did happen to the Princes in the Tower? It also supposedly boasts ghosts, notably Arbella Stuart, cousin of James I who was imprisoned and possibly murdered in the Queens’ house in 1615.
There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower: the beefeaters, ravens, site of the menagerie and just walking around it to soak up the history. Allow plenty of time for your visit. This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions of the United Kingdom.
In 1975, fresh from victory in the Cambodian Civil War the Khmer regime commandeered the Chao Ponhea Yat High School in Phnom Penh. They turned it into the notorious Security Prison 21, or S-21. Known in Khmer as Tuol Sleng. The complex was encased in electrified barbed wire, the rooms were converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers of the most barbaric nature and every window had iron bars. Between 1975 and the eventual fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in 1979, it’s estimated that at least 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng Prison or in the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Huge purges took place at Tuol Sleng, including that of the country’s previous regime and perhaps the most shocking statistic among a collection of shocking statistics was that of the thousands who were held here, only seven survived. Famously, every prisoner was photographed and the images now cover the walls of the Tuol Sleng Museum as a stark and brutal reminder of the genocidal regime that decimated a country. Visits to Tuol Seng (turned into a museum in 1980 after the invading Vietnamese liberated the prison) have been described as ‘profoundly depressing’ and ‘demonstrating the darkest side of the human spirit’.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh in Cambodia was a notorious prison under the Khmer Rouge and which now houses a museum. The building of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was initially a high school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into Prison S-21.
The Khmer Rouge was a faction of Cambodia’s communist party, led by Pol Pot, which was in power from 1975 to 1979. In only four years, they undertook a campaign of mass genocide in which over two million people perished.
Whilst most victims were taken to the Killing Fields to be murdered, the site of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also played a central role in the atrocities. Over 17,000 people were taken to Prison S-21, where they were subjected to forced labour and torture. S-21 was used to hold prisoners before they were to be taken to the Killing Fields, but many died of starvation, disease and torture before they met this fate.
Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum can view the building in a similar state to that as it was after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, with signs of the torture undertaken visible throughout. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum displays a moving exhibit of victims’ photographs – taken as they arrived at the prison – as well as many of their stories. Guided tours can be arranged at the site.