Fascinating prisons around the world you can visit from Robben Island to Alcatraz


You can now sleep in a former prison converted into a luxury hotel in Cornwall. The Bodmin Jail Hotel has opened its doors, although it’s definitely a lot more plush and luxurious compared to when it served as a jail between 1779 to 1927.

But it’s not the only place worthy of the hard cell…. and some are atmospheric, while others are simply harrowing…

Here, we take a look at some of the world’s most fascinating prisons you can visit, from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, to Alcatraz which held some famous inmates including Al Capone.

Check out the full list below…

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, USA

Probably the world’s most famous nick, it was a federal penitentiary from August 11, 1934, to March 21, 1963, having previously been an army fort and a military prison.

‘Celebrity’ inmates included Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

It’s a genuinely extraordinary place to visit on an audio tour; outside you sense the windswept isolation yet you can hear the sounds of the city carried over the cold water, while inside you get a fascinating insight into prison life and the cells.

The prison canteen is an eye opener – Alcatraz was renowned for having the best food in the American prison system and the inmates were allowed to use real knives and forks, though of course they were counted by guards before and after meals.

Alcatraz is quite some place, but most of us feel relieved to get off the island at the end of the tour.

More info: Free entry, the Alcatraz City Cruises ferry from Pier 33 starts at $41 per person. Visit nps.gov/alca/index.htm.

Hexham Old Gaol, Northumberland

Opened in 1333, this is the oldest purpose-built jail in England and was in use until the 1820s when it was converted to a bank and solicitors’ office.

It is now a Grade I listed museum telling the story of the prisoners – and the Archbishop of York, who ruled over the local area and paid for the inmates’ food, drink, clothing and bedding.

Among those locked up were members of the Border reivers, groups of lawless raiders who rampaged along the Anglo-Scottish border for three centuries.

Visitors can ride in a glass lift to explore all four floors and experience what prison life was like in the harsh conditions of medieval England.

More info: £5, currently closed for winter, visit museumsnorthumberland.org.uk/hexham-old-gaol.

Phu Quoc Prison, Vietnam

Located on what is now a lovely holiday island off the southern coast of Cambodia, it was originally built by the French colonial government after the Second World War to hold dissidents.

In 1967 the South Vietnamese army converted it to house up to 32,000 high-ranking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners of war.

Prepare to be shocked: the displays showing the methods of torturing prisoners of war – it is thought around 5,000 died – are extremely disturbing.

I’ve seen several museums showing the savage methods of the Spanish Inquisition, but some of the inhumanity here defies belief. The Inquisition was centuries ago – this happened in the 1960s and 70s and was carried out by a government supported by America.

It is a horrible but compelling insight into the tragedy of the Vietnam War.

There’s a small bar by the exit. You’ll probably need a stiff drink after seeing this place.

More info: 10p entry, visit phuquocprison.org.

Bodmin Jail Hotel, Cornwall

The prison opened in 1779 and was a milestone in jail design with segregated male and female areas, individual cells and hot water. Less progressively, 55 inmates were executed here, for crimes such as murder and burglary, with the last killing in 1909. The prison shut in 1927.

Almost a century later, it has been converted to a luxury, contemporary hotel with an air of mystery and history.

Stone-walled rooms blend state-of-the-art facilities with a hint of intrigue and notoriety and there’s a spectacular glass ceiling in the central atrium. Certainly there wasn’t a plush Champagne Bar or fine dining Chapel Restaurant in those days of incarceration.

More info: Rooms from £209 a night. Visit bodminjailhotel.com.

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

Described as ‘a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity’, it is best known as the offshore island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years.

It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and unmissable for any first-time visitor to the Mother City, with boat trips departing from the wonderful V&A Waterfront.

You’ll normally be shown round by a former inmate and will see the small, damp concrete Cell No 5 in B section and the lime quarry, where prisoner 46664 did hard labour and had his eyesight permanently damaged by the glare from the white rocks.

At night, Mandela would work on his law degree in the 8ft by 7ft cell, which had just a straw bed and a bucket for a toilet.

You’ll stand in silent wonder appreciating his dignity and courage.

More info: from around £9.80. Visit robben-island.org.za.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Probably the darkest place on our list, this is a former secondary school which was used as the brutal, inhuman Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and today it ‘’preserves evidence of a tragic period in Cambodian history’’.

Around 20,000 Cambodians – and a few foreigners snared by the regime, including some Westerners sailing in the Gulf of Thailand – were imprisoned. Extreme forms of torture and rape were appallingly widespread. It is believed only around 200 people were either freed or were still alive when the invading Vietnamese army captured the jail in 1979.

The rest supposedly confessed to being “political enemies” of the deranged regime and were either murdered on-site or, when there was no more room for burials, they were taken to the Killing Fields.

An emotional place to visit with crude cells, iron shackles, photos of the dead and many skulls, it does however offer an understanding of what Marxist dictator

Pol Pot’s genocidal tyranny did to the people of Cambodia.

More info: $5, visit tuolsleng.gov.kh/en.

The Tower of London

Known officially as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, it was also notorious for its use as a prison and as a symbol of state authority – a near-1,000-year-old place to be feared.

Those who heard the dreaded words ‘send them to the Tower’ include Guy Fawkes, Anne Boleyn, the Kray twins (failing to turn up for National Service), Rudolf Hess, Sir Walter Raleigh and the young Princess Elizabeth, before she became Queen Elizabeth I.

While executions of traitors and criminals were more commonly held at Tower Hill, the tower was used in the First and Second World Wars for despatching German spies by firing squad.

Today the UNESCO-listed site is one of London’s leading tourist attractions, loved for its friendly and knowledgeable Beefeaters, the riches of the Crown Jewels and those fabled ravens.

More info: Adult from £28.90/child from £14.40. Visit hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, USA

You want a seriously creepy, crumbling Gothic prison? This is it.

It was operational from 1829 until 1971 and features an innovative wheel-spoke design and attempted to reform, rather than punish, its inmates. It even had central heating and plumbing before such comforts were installed in the White House.

Once finished, the money spent had made it the world’s most expensive public building and more than 300 jails worldwide were constructed using the same spoked design, including Manchester’s Strangeways.

Don’t miss the escape tunnel and Al Capone’s ‘luxury’ cell.

The ‘Rocky’ steps at the fab Philadelphia Museum of Art are a 10-minute walk away.

More info: $17, visit easternstate.org.

Portmeirion, Gwynedd

The delightful Italianate tourist village was created by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 as is best known as the fictional setting of the cult experimental 1960s UK television series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan.

His main character, ex-spy Number Six, is held in The Village with other former spooks from different countries and the show is seen as an analogy for life during the Cold War era, and is known for its enigmatic mixture of the surreal and science fiction fantasy.

Portmeirion is today owned by a charitable trust and is hugely popular for Prisoner fans, and indeed those who have never even heard of the show.

You’ll find excellent accommodation and dining options, shops, sub-tropical gardens and a spa.

More info: day ticket from £8, visit portmeirion.wales.