Do Time in the 10 Oldest Prisons Open to the Public

Prisons are generally places the more serene among us prefer to avoid, because if you're on the inside the odds are it isn't going to be a pleasant experience. But does the compulsion to avoid the prison still exist once it’s stopped operation? Or are we curious about what the tales the somewhat macabre buildings have to tell?

It seems, our morbid curiosity can get the better of us. If we can roam the prison cells, safe in the knowledge we're not about to be locked up any time soon, we as tourists will jump at the chance. Year after year, people from all over the world flock to decommissioned prisons to do everything from experience history, buy souvenirs from prison gift shops and to even get married or enjoy a concert. Some get turned into haunted houses around Halloween and others open their gates so you get the chance to feel what it’s like to be in jail without the forced commitment part. Here’s a list of 10 former prisons that have turned into tourist hot spots.

10 Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia 1892

The high stone walls of Eastern State Penitentiary still stand erect in the middle of an active Philadelphia neighborhood, but nowadays, it just melts into the background- a normal, unthreatening staple of everyday life. Eastern State opened in 1892 on Philadelphia farmland and swamps. It was the most expensive prison in the world at that time, and it differentiated itself from other U.S. prisons by moving away from a philosophy of punishment and more towards one of reflection and spirituality (based on the Quakers). This doesn’t mean that convicted criminals were taking it easy, though. Eastern State’s nickname was “Cherry Hill”, because of its pretty surroundings, but the name offers a stark contrast to the harsh environment on the inside. Prisoners here were often left in isolation and subjected to hard labor. The inmates were forced to live in a world of silence with the thought that this would lead to reflections on the evil of their crimes and thus a yearning for redemption. Over time, this system drew many critics, one being Charles Dickens, and it eventually faded away. The inmates were later allowed to exercise together and they even had their own newspaper called “The Umpire”. Eastern State was also home to a few famous inmates such as Al Capone from 1929-1930 and Willie Sutton, a bank robber, who was notable for his various escape attempts from the prison. The penitentiary closed for good in 1971, and is now run by the non-profit entity Eastern State Penitentiary historic Site, Inc. Eastern State’s gates are open for tours, shopping in its gift shop, and it even operates as a haunted house around the Halloween season in a promotion called “Terror Behind the Walls”.

9 Horsens State Prison, Denmark 1853

This prison, which opened in 1853 shut down not too long ago in 2006. It is, perhaps with the exception of Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the only prisons on this list, which fully embraces the “come hang out in an ex prison” mentality. Horsens State Prison has become venue to plenty of concerts. Famous American rock band, Metallica is even slated to perform there in the summer of 2014. There is history to be seen at the prison, too. Stories of daring escapes. There’s an axe that beheaded serial arsonist Jens Nielsen, who instead of facing continued solitary confinement decided to try and kill a couple of prison guards in order to receive the death penalty. This decommissioned prison takes pride in boasting an insider prison experience unlike any other.

8 Devil's Island, French Guiana 1852

Devil’s Island was a penal colony opened in 1852, and it certainly lived up to its name for most of the criminals that it harbored. It was started by Emperor Napoleon, and it wasn’t your typical prison. If you were unfortunate enough to be sent there along with some of the most dangerous criminals, your days were filled with hard labor in the tropic heat of a jungle. Escape was nearly impossible, because, well, jungle. And not to mention that a piranha and shark-infested sea surrounded the entire place. So, what would be worse than being sentenced to a place rightfully dubbed “Devil’s Island”? How about being wrongfully convicted of espionage and sent there? This is exactly what happened to a French army officer named Captain Dreyfuss, who was wrongly accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. He spent over five years on the island until he was released on June 5, 1899. The harsh conditions of Devil’s Island were communicated to the public by Captain Dreyfuss’ writing and the tales of the few prisoners who actually managed to escape. But it wasn’t until 1952 when the penal colony officially closed. Nowadays, Devil’s Island is open to tourists with cruises offered to take them there.

7 Old Melbourne Gaol, Australia 1842

Old Melbourne Gaol started prison operations in 1842, and 172 years later, its most notable fact is probably that it was the scene of 133 hangings. The most famous of its executions was that of Australian citizen Ned Kelly. He was hanged for murdering a police officer at the age of twenty-five. There was a mystery that involved his remains later on, though. Inmates, who were hanged, were buried without their heads in unmarked graves. In 1978, Ned Kelly’s skull was stolen from a display case at the Old Melbourne Gaol, or at least it was believed that the skull belonged to the infamous Aussie. Upon later investigation, it was revealed that the stolen skull was not Kelly’s, but rather his bones were buried with the remains of other executed prisoners. It was home to everyone from harsh criminals to the homeless and often suffered from overcrowding. The prison was closed for good in 1929, and the prisoners were shipped to an institution that met penal standards. Today, the Old Melbourne Gaol, again, home of 133 hangings, is now open for all sorts of events- everything from ghost tours to weddings. Although, the skulls of inmates such as Ned Kelly are no longer on display due to the ethical beliefs of the National Trust of Australia, which now manages the property.

6 Port Arthur, Australia 1830

What started out as a small timber station in 1830, Port Arthur later grew into one of the harshest penal settlements around. It harbored some of the more hardened criminals at the time, and used them as a big industrial work force. Port Arthur never seemed to loose its timber roots, as convicts were forced to cut timber from huge trees around the settlement. Such harsh labor certainly took a tool on the inmates, but in 1848, Port Arthur took a much more psychological approach to dealing with its prisoners much like Eastern State Penn would do later on. The penal settlement began to isolate the prisoners from one another, even making them wear hoods in complete silence. These conditions were so harsh on the mind that many of the inmates developed mental illnesses and eventually had to be housed in an asylum. Understandably, these conditions led to many attempted escapes. Although, not many succeeded since the waters were shark-infested. The problem with using inmates as an industrial workforce is that eventually people get old and too sick to work. So, the population of convicts lessened over time and was down to zero by 1877. Today, Port Arthur is opened to tourists, who can go experience the ex prison settlement through a guided tour and even go see where deceased prisoners are buried at the Isle of the Dead.

5 5.Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland 1796

This Dublin gaol was founded in 1796, and was notorious for housing women in much poorer conditions than men, as well as for imprisoning children as young as 7 for petty crimes. In the early days of this prison's existence, people were hanged outside it - but that practice waned into the 1800s.  After the Easter Rising in 1916 - a rebellion which saw militants fight for an Ireland free from British rule - several high-profile Republicans were executed at Kilmainham. The gaol was decommissioned in 1924, followed by decades of debate as to whether to re-open it, tear it down or restore it. By the late 1950s, a movement took off to restore the prison site as a museum and memorial to the Easter Rising. It's now a top tourist attraction in Dublin, with city tours building this museum of Irish Nationalism into their regular itineraries.

4 Robben Island, South Africa 1671

The history of Robben Island is nothing short of somber. It wasn’t just used as a prison- often times holding people who did not belong there- but it was a hospital for those the public deemed too sick to keep in society. Robben Island’s term as a prison began when the Dutch started placing their convicted criminals there in around 1671. The British followed in this practice until a newly established whaling route made escape far too easy. After some time, the island was closed to criminals and opened as a “hospital” for those plagued with leprosy, chronic illness and even mental illness. Convicted criminals were moved to the mainland to do hard labor, but the island was still a prison- only now its inhabitants were unfortunate enough to be convicted of being too sick. They had no hope of going home, because there was no cure for their ills. This, however, did not mean the end of the island’s prison days. The sick were eventually sent to hospitals in the Cape after 1931, and in 1961, Robben Island became home to many political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was one of the most notable prisoners, and upon his and the other political prisoners’ release, the island’s image was repurposed to represent that of the resolve of the human spirit. The prison was officially closed in 1996, and is now a museum and world heritage site.

3 Chateau d’lf, France 1524

Many might recognize this prison as the setting of a daring escape in the novel and movie, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, in which a man is wrongly imprisoned at the Chateau and then escapes to seek revenge. But this prison was a very real place, and one that held the reputation as being one of the worse prisons in the world. Where Devil’s Island may have seemed daunting, because it was a jungle, the Chateau was literally a fortress that was originally built as a defense against attacks from the sea. When this vision for the structure did not pan out, it was converted to a prison- one that was filled with unsavory characters, who were not just the criminals sentenced there. The prison was filled with corruption and inhumane treatment. Prisoners were often beat and even murdered. A class system of sorts popped up, where the rich inmates were granted better living conditions than the poor, who were left in damp, dark places and often tied to walls and beaten. Nowadays, the Chateau is a huge tourist attraction, propelled in popularity by “The Count of Monte Cristo”. There’s even an annual swimming race called the Monte Cristo Challenge to celebrate the novel’s/movie’s main character Edmond Dantes’ escape.

2 Elmina Castle, Ghana 1482

Elmina Castle functioned as a different sort of prison. It wasn’t one where a convicted criminal was shipped off to in order to serve a sentence. It was a prominent point along the slave trade route. The Portuguese built Elmina Castle in 1482 to be used as a trading post. But when the Dutch took over in 1637, and as the demand for slaves continued to increase in American and the Caribbean, Elmina became important for housing Africans to be shipped off into slavery. Targets for slaves were found many ways. War. Criminals. Or even people just simply run down by slave hunters. Once in the castle, humans were cramped into dungeons on the lower levels in horrid conditions, and more than 30,000 slaves eventually found themselves in and out and on their way to a life in chains in another country. Today, the castle is visited by tourists from all over the world and was named as a World Heritage Monument under UNESCO.

1 Tower of London 1066

History itself seems to be ingrained in the very foundation of the Tower of London. Ever since it was built by William the Conqueror in 1066, this landmark has worn many hats. Home of the crown jewels. The royal residence. Prison. If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself incarcerated at the tower, odds are you did something to anger the monarch. Those accused of treason, speaking ill against the royals and event counterfeiting money were sentenced to the Tower. Some of the more notable prisoners were Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII, who was executed at the Tower, Princess Elizabeth, who was imprisoned by her half sister Mary I, because she represented a threat to her power and Guy Fawkes for his part in a plot to blow up the Parliament House. The last prisoners to be held at the Tower were East end London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Some say that the Tower’s former prisoners still lurk inside its walls, though. It has been the site of numerous of ghost sightings over the years with the Queen’s house dubbed as one of the most hunted buildings of the Tower. This historic structure, which is also on the World Heritage List, has everything from the crown jewels to figures of armored kings to the aforementioned chance to see something supernatural to keep tourist entertained.


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