Most of us don’t think about prisons 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 realize 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.
Alcatraz – San Francisco (USA)
Has any other prison been the subject of 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 organizations that challenged South Africa’s infamous apartheid regime, he was kept in harsh conditions and forced to take on punishing hard labor. 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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