Canada Slim behind bars 3: Prisoners of choice

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 5 July 2016

Why do people travel?

For each person there are personal, individual reasons for venturing outside our personal comfort zones into the Great Unknown.

But essentially I think it is a quest to learn something new, something previously undiscovered, not yet experienced before.

Travellers seek to challenge themselves by discovering who they themselves are in new situations.

Some folks want to immerse themselves in situations to attempt to understand what these situations feel like.

It is one thing to cocoon yourself within your own culture and seek to find this culture wherever you go.

But for some, travel truly rewards when one immerses oneself into the experience of being another person outside of one´s experience.

Some may wonder what is it like to sleep behind the bars and walls of a prison without actually having to commit a crime.

It is one thing to voluntarily sleep in a cage and leave that cage when one desires.

It is quite a different experience being forced to remain entrapped within a confined area dependent upon the mercy of others for your release.

Tourists can indulge their curiosity about jail sleeping in more and more locations around the world.

In my last blog post, Canada Slim behind bars 2: Punishment preserved, I wrote of Fremantle Prison.

Fremantle PrisonOne can sleep there as well as tour the Prison.

And Fremantle is just one of many prisons where one can experience overnight accommodation behind bars.

On the East Coast of Australia, in the southeast between Adelaide and Melbourne, (through which most travellers speed through, thus missing wild, pristine beaches and tranquil fishing villages) close to the border with the State of Victoria, Mount Gambier is South Australia´s second most populous city.

You can stay at the Old Mount Gambier Gaol, built in 1866, this Heritage-listed building was last used as a prison in 1995.

The experience is anything but luxurious.

Very little has been done to renovate the cells which remain with heavy, rusty bolted doors and solitary loos in the corner of each cell.

The Jailhouse Hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand, boasts that it has been accommodating people for over 130 years!

Built in 1874 by Benjamin Mountfort, (who also designed the Christchurch Catheral, the Canterbury Museum and the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers), the Jailhouse was constructed out of 60cm thick concrete and has served as a jail, a women´s prison, a military camp and (since 2006) a hostel.

In Luzern, here in Switzerland, the Löwengraben Jail Hotel was a prison from 1862 until 1998.

This ultimate location was chosen, because in that time there was still a moat in the street in front of the building.

In 1999, the Jailhotel opened.

Until 1969 all kinds of prisoners were locked up.

During the last 30 years though, only remand prisoners and conscientious objectors stayed in this prison.

Although this prison had only space for 55 inmates, there were more than that most of the time.

The prison also had a guillotine, which is now in the Museum of History in Luzern.

In 1998, Grosshof Prison in Kriens was built and all the inmates of the city prison had to move over there.


This hotel goes beyond simply renting out former prison cells as overnight rooms.



For an extra price, visitors can stay in the former library or the director´s office, both of which have been turned into luxury suites.

Every part of the prison has been put to some new and creative use without compromising the essence of the original layout or the prison contents.

The library is still full of old prison books for visitors to read during their stay.

In Oxford, England, my favourite English city, the core of Oxford Castle is a millennium old.

Most of the Castle´s structures (old and new) were converted into a prison in the 1800s.

Today the Malmaison Hotel Oxford has overnight rooms, apartments, restaurants and bars.

Much of the prison infrastructure is still evident to visiting eyes, but the cells of Her Majesty´s Prison Oxford (closed in 1996) have tripled in size and feature showers, clawfoot tubs and fancy toiletries.

The thick walls, low ceilings and original iron cell doors still remain and still today the barred windows won´t open.

In Boston, Massachusetts, USA, the infamous Charles Street Jail / Charlestown State Prison was originally a model prison in the 1800s that fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century.

Prone to riots and subject to physical decay, the Jail was officially condemned decades before it finally shut its doors as a prison.

Today it has reopened its doors as the Liberty, an amazingly luxurious four-star Hotel that would shock and impress the Jail´s former inmates.

The Liberty Hotel, Boston - Cupola

On the edge of Boston´s Beacon Hill neighbourhood, the Liberty / Jail was built from local granite in 1851 and served as a prison until 1990.

The Liberty houses 298 rooms of luxury (19 of which are in a former cell block).

You can still find remnants of jail cells all over the Hotel, often backlit in neon green, pink and purple.

Malcolm X (1925 – 1965), aka Malcolm Little, black Muslim minister and human rights activist, once did time here.

Malcolm X in March 1964

In 1946, Malcolm was arrested while picking up a stolen watch he had left at a shop for repairs, and in February began serving an eight-to-ten-year sentence for larceny and breaking and entering.

He was paroled in August 1952.

In Liepaja, on the Baltic coast of Latvia, the Karosta Prison Hotel brags that it is “unfriendly, unheated, uncomfortable and open all year round”.


Latvia’s Karosta Prison was used as a Nazi and Soviet military prison for most of the 20th century.

Hundreds of prisoners are said to have died here, many of them shot in the head.

Nowadays the nightmarish facility has been transformed in a prison-themed hotel where guests can sign an agreement to be treated like actual inmates.

This former brutal KGB jail has no fancy touches – everything here remains as when it was a fully-functioning detention and torture centre, barbed wire included.

You are treated like an actual prisoner throughout, complete with threats and warning gunfire and crying fellow inmates.

That includes sleeping in a cell on an old mattress laid over wooden boards, eating prison food served through the barred doors, getting verbally abused by the guards and following orders to the letter.

Failure to comply to the strict code of conduct is punished through physical exercise and cleaning work around the prison.

Karosta Prison, Liepāja, Latvia

Gluttons for punishment will get a bellyful in this creepy old prison, which operated right up until 1997.

Built in 1900 as an infirmary, it was quickly turned into a military prison, even before the building was completed.

Tours depart on the hour, detailing the history of the prison, which was used to punish disobedient soldiers.

A range of more extreme ‘experiences’ is also on offer for groups of 10 or more.


If you’re craving some serious punishment, or just want to brag that you’ve spent the night in a Soviet jail, sign up to become a prisoner for the night.


You’ll be subjected to regular bed checks, verbal abuse by guards in period garb and forced to relieve yourself in the world’s most disgusting latrine (seriously).



Try booking the night in Cell 26 – solitary confinement – you won’t be bothered, but the pitch-blackness will undoubtedly drive you off the edge.

For those wanting a pinch of masochism without having to spend the night, there are one-hour ‘reality shows’.

There are also tours to the once-off-limits northern forts, where you can take part in the Escape From The USSR spy game.

Kaiserslautern, Rheinland-Palatinate, in southwestern Germany, is home to 98,166 people (including 45,000 NATO military personnel), a championship football club, the largest public swimming pool in Europe, the Pfalztheater (where the first German performance of West Side Story took place), the Palatinate Forest (one of the largest forests in Central Europe), the Karlstal whitewater canyon, the Kaiserpfalz (the castle of Emperor Barbarossa- “Redbeard”), the largest US military community outside the United States and – the Alcatraz Hotel.

Open from 1867 until 2002, this former prison features 56 rooms (some of them cells) and offers the “full inmate experience” complete with optional striped pyjamas.

Despite having no connection whatsoever to the island prison of Alcatraz,  the hotel´s decor randomly pays tribute to its namesake with plenty of pictures from San Francisco.

The full inmate experience includes inmate-made bedframes, an old prison toilet, cages and three levels of cells.

In the Swedish capital of Stockholm, sitting on its own lush green oasis island, the Langholmen Hotel once housed Sweden´s most wanted until 1975 and was the site of the country´s last execution in 1921.

There remains bars on the windows and ladders joining inmate bunks but after touring the onsite museum, one can enjoy the modern pleasures of  meatballs and pickled herring inside the prison´s former hospital which is now a restaurant.

The oldest part of Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki, Finland, dates back to 1837 and the main part to 1888.

The building originally served as a county prison and pre-trial detention centre.

Almost 40% of Finland´s prisoners are reported to have passed through this four-winged former county prison and pre-trial detention centre.

The prison was closed in 2002.

The 106 rooms, comprised of two to three cells each, are sleek and minimalist behind the towering red brick perimeter walls.

I have visited Boston, Luzern, Oxford and Stockholm, but did not have the opportunity to visit the abovementioned prison hotels, so I hope to return to these cities to do so.

I hope to visit Christchurch, Helsinki, Kaiserslautern, Liepaja and Mount Gambier one day soon.

But the one prison hotel I have yet to mention is the place wherein I both lived as a longterm resident and worked as a tour guide: the Ottawa Jail Hostel in Ottawa, Canada…and that experience deserves a post all its own…

Nicholas Street Gaol, Ottawa, Canada - 20050218.jpg







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