Between Bars ~ Worlds most well known Prison Tours

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Travel Features >> Between Bars ~ Worlds most well known Prison Tours

Between Bars ~ Worlds most well known Prison Tours

May 17, 2011

Okay so how many of you clicked in here thinking you’re in for a meeting with the great mellow yellow liquid? Sorry about that, but the other options – “just jails”, “prickly prisons” - didn’t quite make the cut, when describing some of the most well known prison tours in the world.

This section is dedicated to some of the best-known shrines to captivity. They’re all, equally, representatives of crime but there is a major difference between them; while some have, as prisons are known to do, incarcerated criminals, others have been the sites of criminal incarceration. While some are gentle reminders of that pretty pithy sentiment: my right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins, others are legacies of the craziest colonialism. While some are now basically museums, the others are… well… jails.

Robben Island – Cape Town

In the deep blue pond that is the Atlantic Ocean, just a short distance from the southwestern coast of Africa lies one of the most abiding symbols of colonial repression.

Dutch sailors on their way to the East Indies (India) had been using the Cape as a refreshment stopover, buying fresh livestock that could be converted into meat dishes further along the journey. Robben Island was discovered in 1488 by a sailor named Bartolomeu Dias. It soon came to be used by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British as a trading outpost and a prison. The island held its first political prisoner in 1658, a Khoikhoi tribesman called Autshumato who had the cheek to take back the cattle for which he believed he was being given a raw deal. Eventually he escaped but was to be one of very few people to have done so. The British ousted the Dutch from the Cape at the end of the 18th century and got into a protracted war with the local Xhosa people of southern Africa. On gaining control of Robben the Brits used the island as social circular file. Whoever wasn’t healthy and fit enough to contribute to the great colonial enterprise was literally marginalized – sent off the mainland to live under the most gruesome conditions imaginable. Robben Island became the home of the dying, the destitute, those afflicted with leprosy, STDs, those diagnosed with mental health problems.

Around the time of Word War II, the apartheid act was passed in South Africa. Those who rebelled would become the newest category of residents on Robben Island, which had since ceased to be a leper colony. In 1964 the island received its most famous resident ever. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, then an underground movement was sentenced to life imprisonment. It wasn’t until 27 years had lapsed that Mandela walked out of prison, behind him an entire nation walked to freedom too. Today Robben Island, ironically enough, is a symbol of freedom and the struggle that has marked its achievement in many, many lands in the world.

How To

Get there by ferry from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town. Make your way to the spanking new Nelson Mandela Gateway where you can look at exhibits at the museum or chow down at the Docks Restaurant. Ferries leave at 9 am, 11 am and 1 pm.

Tours include a round trip by boat, a bus trip around the island where you can see local fauna at the bird sanctuary, and a tour of the maximum-security prison. Get an idea of the history of the prison from the tour guide – invariably someone who has been a political prisoner.

The entire tour lasts 3 ½ hours and costs R 220 for adults, R 110 for children under 18 years of age.

Cellular Jail – Andaman Islands

The Andamans are a beautiful set of islands in the Bay of Bengal. Lying to the east of mainland India, the Andamans today attract visitors to their clean beaches, coconut palm fringed shoreline and snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities. It was not so long ago though that these islands, more commonly known to Indians as kalapani (literally ‘black waters’) were anything but a vacation centre. They were where freedom fighters were sent off so that the British could carry on the business of empire without distraction.

The Andamans were first used to hold regular criminals, thugs and looters. But, in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion, the prisoners here came to be those accused of political crimes. The mutineers were shunted off the mainland and kept in the faraway Viper Island from where there was no escape. It wasn’t until 1906 however, that the Cellular Jail was constructed. A mammoth structure of single cells so that inmates could be kept in solitary confinement, it came to represent the worst of colonial oppression. The whole idea behind the bleak solitary confinement of these prisoners was that it would give the inmate the time to reflect and repent, and keep him from getting together with others and spreading the corruption.

The who’s who of the Indian freedom movement spent time at the prison. Notably, these were by and large the revolutionaries rather than members of the Congress party, which, under the leadership of Gandhi espoused non-violence. After independence in 1947, Cellular Jail was begun to be demolished. However, former inmates stepped in to prevent the destruction of the building. It is now a national memorial.

Originally, the Cellular Jail had seven wings emanating from a central section that was the fulcrum of the prison. All but three were destroyed in the post Independence demolition drive.

How to

The simplest way to get to Port Blair, the administrative capital of the Andamans and the city in which the Jail is located, is by air. Catch your flight from Calcutta, Chennai or Vishakhapatnam. Going by ship takes a lot of advance planning. It’s a three-day journey, and connections are available from Calcutta, Chennai and Vishakhapatnam.

Non-Indians need to get a Restricted Area permit to visit the Andamans. This can be got on arrival at Port Blair from the immigration authority at the School Line Airport or the Deputy Superintendent of Police (if you’ve come in by ship). It’s also issued by immigration offices in Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta and Mumbai and by Indian overseas missions.

The best time to visit the Andamans is between October and May because that’s when the weather and the waters are just right for swimming and snorkelling.

The Cellular Jail is one of the most important attractions on the island of Port Blair. It has been converted into a museum and in the evenings there is a light & sound show to educate visitors on the history of the jail.

Alcatraz – San Francisco

The Rock! Think big prison, think mean looking always sneering hardened criminals, think Sean Connery if you must, and you’ll think Alcatraz. This fortification of a maximum-security prison served as a temporary residence for such big time baddies as Al Capone, ‘Doc’ Barker who robbed more than anybody’s fair share of banks, George “machine gun” Kelly and Stroud – the Birdman.

Situated on a small island in San Francisco bay, the massive fortress of Alcatraz is actually a museum now. But its history is long and chequered, going back to the mid 19th century when it was a military fortification. It housed, in its early days, the POWs from the Spanish American War and was turned into a federal maximum-security prison only in 1934, the last phase lasting until 1963. In 1969 American Indian activists seized the island and held on to it till 1971. They were protesting against the bureau of Indian Affairs and won their cause.

How to

You’d be surprised at the popularity of the Alcatraz tour. Tickets are often sold out a week in advance so it’s a good idea to book ahead. Alcatraz is now a part of what’s called the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Take a ferry to the island from Fisherman’s Wharf. Time was when the Warden Johnston was the only boat that went up and down between mainland San Francisco and Alcatraz Island, ferrying prisoners for their court appointments and prison wardens and their families for a day’s outing. Time is now when Alcatraz is the day’s outing. Go out there, check out the lighthouse, do some birdwatching, make your way around the prison museum and come back on a return ferry. It’s pretty good fun.

Tower of London – London

What do you get when you mix a thousand years, royal intrigue, Anne Boleyn, the Crown Jewels and more than a few ex-palaces? You get one of London’s most popular tourist attractions – the Tower of London cocktail.

The sprawling Tower of London complex located on the banks of the Thames, believe it or not, actually began life in the first century of the second millennium as a simple wood and mud enclosure on the outskirts of the old Roman town of Londinium Augusta. Then, along came William the Conqueror with his penchant for upsetting the applecart, seized London, captured England and became the first Norman to rule Britannia. He took over this humble building by which the Thames flowed, added a healthy dose of good sturdy stone and built The Great Tower. We now know this structure as The White Tower. In the many centuries since this development more structures were added by a variety of rulers, and the complex evolved as an all-in-one bastion of stupefying imperial grandeur.

Castles, palaces, towers and walkways connecting the various buildings were constructed, as was a prison that could fill even the most stubborn and committed mischief-maker with dread. And no effort was spared to fill this jail with deserving individuals. If the king decreed it, his will was taken as God’s command. So William Fitzosbert was handed his comeuppance by Richard the I, six hundred Jews were held for “clipping and adulterating the King’s coin” in 1282, and a certain Brother John Shettisham was booked for the terrible crime of “trespass of venison” nine years thereafter. William Wallace graced the prison in 1305 before being quartered, disembowelled and beheaded, the Knights Templar were booked for their “shocking habits” before being sent off to mend their ways at sundry monasteries, Anne Boleyn was done in by Henry the VII, and between all these, and afterwards, many famous and infamous personalities found their way to this royal prison. Some never found their way out. Their remains are interred at the Scaffold Site, situated in front of the Chapel Royal of St. Peter at Vincula.

How to

Take the Tower Hill tube or take a riverboat till the Tower Pier. Or just take the bus. Guided tours last an hour and begin every half hour. The Tower is open from March to October, Tuesday to Saturday, 9 am to 5:30 pm; Sunday-Monday, 10 am to 5:30 pm. From November to February, it’s open Tuesday to Saturday 9 am to 4:30 pm, Sunday-Monday, 10 am to 4:30 pm. Last entry is an hour before closing time. Admission costs £19.80 for adults, £10.45 for children up to 16 years and £55.00 for a family of 2 adults and 6 kids. Between those hours and for that price you may check out the Crown Jewels, the Medieval Palace and the White Tower and the Tower’s Ravens who live near the Wakefield Tower, besides much else. The Beefeaters, those gentle souls who wear spiffy outfits and are formally called the Yeoman Warders, take it upon themselves to conduct guided tours. After your walks through the Tower grounds, consider a meal at the Café on the Wharf.

Students Prison – Heidelberg

Heidelberg in the Black Forest area of Germany is kissed by the River Neckar and surrounded by densely wooded hills. This city is home to the country’s oldest university, a premier institution that has churned out huge amounts of worthwhile work in the fields of biotech, information tech, genetic engineering and environmental protection. Tourists to Germany make their way to Heidelberg for its majestic castles and magical countryside, the beauty of the town endorsed by none less than Mark Twain, Schumann, Brahms and the painter Turner. Mark Twain perhaps would have also given a big thumbs up to the awesome Heidelberg University but he was already on record protesting, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. But he would have been happy to know that certain young men from distinguished families enrolled at the prestigious university were living by that wonderful credo, so much so that Heidelberg University needed to have its own little prison!

The Students Prison is way at the back in the Old University in the “Augustinergasse”, and was operational from 1778 to 1914. During this period the university was given powers of autonomous jurisdiction and so was within its rights to detain its mischief-makers. Young frat brats were ‘imprisoned’ for such crimes as disturbing the calm, particularly if the disturbance could be attributed to alcohol induced euphoria, for being rude to the authorities or playing tricks on them (yes, sometimes Malory Towers meets Doctors), or for being part of a duel. Depending on how bad the guy had been his time in the slammer could range from three days to four weeks. But since this was a university facility, and all roads must eventually lead to class, inmates were allowed to attend lectures.

The Students Prison was always and still is quite a cheerful place. There is graffiti on the walls and the many creative works have been preserved for the visitor today.

How to

The Old University is at 2 Augustinergasse in Heidelberg. It’s open between April and September, from 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday to Sunday. In October, it is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. In the winter, from November to March, it’s open from Tuesday to Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Admission fees are € 3.00 for adults.

Leads Prison - Venice

In 1755 Giacomo Casanova was incarcerated here for repeatedly flouting the 7th commandment; it’s another thing that he managed to dig his way out, presumably he didn’t go back home! Byron romanticised the melancholic walk down the Ponte de Sospin to the deathly prison; it’s another thing that by the 19th century, when he was writing ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, the Bridge of Sighs that links the Doge’s Palace and the Leads Prison was a path to brief incarceration for only minor crimes. You’re not really allowed to wander through this old jail all by yourself; it’s another thing that in the off-season you can coax and cajole the friendly Italian authorities into letting you through! That’s the Leads Prison nitty-gritty – it’s all so deliciously romantic and so totally Italian that you simply cannot miss it.

The Leads Prison stands across the Rio di Palazzo canal from the magnificent Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale. The subject of Lord Byron’s famous poem, the Bridge of Sighs is the narrow low enclosed bridge that connects the prignioni (or prison) with the inquisitor’s rooms in the palace. It is locally known as Ponte de Sospin. The Palazzo Ducale is home to one of the finest museums in Venice; minimalists beware, the Doge’s Palace, once the highest seat of the magistracy, has such a superbly embellished exterior that it warrants the honour of being called the finest example of Venetian Gothic. Inside there are masterpieces by Bellini, Veronese, Tintorreto and Tiziano. Across the narrow canal from the palace is the prison. When still in service the prison was the site of summary executions and inquisitions. Today, it’s open to visitors who’ve signed up for the Itinerari Segreti or the Secret Itinerary tour. In its heyday the prison could strike terror into the most nonchalant heart. The Venetian laws were draconian to say the least, and one could land in the clapper for such deadly crimes as fornication (Casanova kaput), something as well defined as ‘indecent behaviour’, and even wearing the wrong clothes. Citizens were encouraged to snitch: to get your back at someone all you needed to do was leave a complaint chit in one of the niches in the palace walls.

How to

The palace and the prison are just south of St. Mark’s Basilica in the area called San Marco. The glorious pink and white building is an important tourist site and landmark, and anybody in Venice will be able to direct you to it. The Itinerari Segreti is a 75-minute tour conducted in Italian that takes the visitor through the majestic rooms of the Doge’s quarters, across the Bridge of Sighs and to the prison where one can see the cells and the torture chambers. The tour is open from September to June at 9:45 am, 10:45 am and 11:35 am. In July and August, it is open at 9:55 am and 11:35 am. You’re required to book in advance. Admission fees are around € 18 for adults and around € 12 for children between 6 and 14. Be very polite to the ticket window people.

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