Prison Tours

Check out these prison tours for a glimpse of prison life.
By: Lisa Singh

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Prisons are a source of endless fascination. A big part of that fascination comes down to the questions that prisons raise: What would a life stripped of basic freedoms do to the mind and the spirit? Is justice always served? Check out these prison tours for a glimpse of prison life so raw, so gritty and sometimes so inspiring, you’ll see freedom in a whole new light. 

Clint Eastwood may have escaped from Alcatraz on the big screen. But no prisoner was ever that lucky in real life. Take a ferry bound for Alcatraz Island, and see where infamous inmates such as Al “Scarface” Capone did their time.
Folsom State Prison was one of the first maximum-security prisons in the US. See an indoor display with items that put the “maximum” in “security,” including a hangman’s noose, gatling gun and, of course, the obligatory ball and chain.
It’s the granddaddy of all prisons. Between 1829 and 1971, Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary housed its share of notable inmates, including Al Capone for 8 months. Check out his cell, which includes fine furniture, oriental and a cabinet radio.
Paranormal true believers call West Virginia State Penitentiary one of the most haunted prisons in the US. Inside the Gothic-style prison, which operated from 1876 to 1995, an elusive “shadow man” is said to wander the premises.
This museum wasn’t actually ever a prison. But its 6,000-square-foot brick exhibit hall, complete with a guard tower, was designed to resemble one. The biggest highlight is a full-size replica cell -- you’re welcome to walk inside. But no climbing onto the top bunk!
Don’t let the tropical location fool you. Located 6 nautical miles off the coast of French Guiana, Devil’s Island was used mainly for French prisoners from 1852 to 1946. Today, you can see the original prison cells, including one that housed Alfred Dreyfus.
Before there was Alcatraz, there was Chateau d’If -- the ultimate escape-proof prison. Located on the island of If in southeastern France, the 3-story fortress, flanked by 3 towers, was built in the early 1500s as a defense against sea attacks. Later, its remote location made it a natural for a prison, famously captured in the book, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Built by William the Conqueror to protect London (and assert his power), the Tower of London was later used a prison, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries. It also inspired what would become a chilling phrase, “sent to the Tower.”
Built in 1482 by slave traders, this castle was a refuge for some, a living hell for others: upstairs were luxury suites reserved for Europeans; below, slave dungeons where as many as 200 people were cramped together at any given time. By the 18th century, 30,000 slaves had passed through Elmina on their way to North and South America.
Between the 17th and 20th centuries, Robben Island housed political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Since 1997, it has served as a living museum -- and powerful testament to the resilience of those who fought for universal freedoms. A tour includes a visit to the island’s maximum security prison, plus discussion with an ex-political prisoner.
Australia’s largest penal station, Port Arthur served as the destination for the toughest of convicted British and Irish criminals in the mid-1800s. Saved by a conservation program in the 1960s, the penitentiary now serves as an historic site. It includes its own museum, where visitors can see if they have any convict ancestors in the good ole family tree.
First used as a prison by French colonists, it later gained infamy as the place where North Vietnamese forces held prisoners during the Vietnam War -– among them, US Senator John McCain. While most of the original prison was demolished in 1996, the southernmost corner was preserved. Today, visitors can view the original cells from the French colonial period, complete with leg irons.

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