5 Prisons for Law-Abiding Citizens

visit prison - Eastern State Penitentiary
Flickr, Celine Aussourd

In this lull between fun summer TV like “True Blood” and the fall premieres of network television shows, many people have been binge watching the Netflix comedy, “Orange is the New Black.” Set at a women’s prison in Rockland County, New York, the series has generated new interest in jail. (From the outside, at least.) Here are five notable prison museums around the world with flexible visiting hours for an easy escape.

Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA
Built as an “inescapable” prison on an island off San Francisco, Alcatraz has had quite a few famous inmates, including Al Capone. The federal prison was closed in 1963 and has been a museum for several decades. In addition to the prison museum, it also has the country’s oldest lighthouse and a permanent exhibition on the historic Native American occupation. Tickets are a steep $30 and up per adult, but they include transportation, since you can’t make it off “the Rock” alive.Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA
Another stop on Al Capone’s “jail tour,” this Center City Philadelphia jail has been the set for several films including “Twelve Monkeys” and the Transformers sequel, and many TV shows about ghosts and jails. The self-guided audio tour (narrated by Steve Buscemi!) details the history of the prison, active from 1829 to 1969. Regular tickets are $14, and look out for special events; the Halloween Haunted House is especially popular.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison, Warsaw, Poland
Telling another part of the Holocaust, these two related historical sites in Warsaw show what it was like to be interrogated and imprisoned in the gruesome Nazi occupation. Part of the Polish city’s excellent collection of museums, they are free to visit and well-maintained, though very somber.

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The isolation of the small island near Cape Town made it a fitting site for a leper colony, a military training station and a place for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was the most famous of former inmates for 18 years; he was one of dozens imprisoned during apartheid. Tickets are about $22, including ferry transportation to and from the mainland, a bus tour of the island and “interaction” with a former prisoner. President Obama visited the island and museum this summer, and was “deeply humbled” by the experience.

Tuel Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The secret prison of Pol Pot, dictator of Cambodia in the 1970s and leader of the Khmer Rouge, Tuel Sleng is now a museum cataloging the genocide perpetrated there. The museum contains the 6,000 detailed photographs and records of inmates left by prison staff, though as many as 30,000 were said to have been detained, tortured and murdered there. The museum is preserved as it was found in 1979, and is an important site, along with the “Killing Fields,” documenting and memorializing the victims of this dark regime.

Would you visit a prison?

Alcatraz Marks 50th Anniversary Of Famous Escape

Alcatraz
They said Alcatraz was escape-proof, but 50 years ago yesterday, three prisoners made an ingenious break out, paddled out into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay and disappeared.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were ready to bust out of prison. Over the past year they had patiently chipped away at the air vents in their respective cells with spoons. At night they’d replace the vents and cover the expanding tunnels with pieces of colored cardboard.

On the night of the breakout they squirmed through the tunnels into an unused service corridor and made their way to the roof. To keep the guards from noticing they were gone, they left behind dummy heads in their beds made of paper maché and real hair gathered from the prison barbershop.

From the roof they climbed the barbed wire fence and floated away on a raft made of rubber raincoats. They were never seen again. Fragments of their raft and plywood paddles were found on Angel Island, two miles away from Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft and a car was stolen that night.

A fourth man, Allen West, didn’t make it to the rendezvous in time and was left behind.

Did the three men escape? Despite many rumors, none of them were ever found. A ship’s captain said he spotted a body floating in the bay wearing a prison uniform. The body wasn’t recovered. Their files remain open.

%Gallery-158021%According to legend, they would return to Alcatraz for a visit on the 50th anniversary. As unlikely as that sounds, US Marshal Michael Dyke spent yesterday on Alcatraz hoping to catch the aged fugitives. He left at the end of the day disappointed.

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” started life as a fort. During the Civil War, local Confederate sympathizers and privateers were imprisoned there. It continued as a military prison through World War I, when it housed conscientious objectors. Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1933 and was used to keep the most troublesome prisoners. Its guests included such model citizens as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. It was closed in 1963.

Now Alcatraz is a National Park and open to the public. Visitors can see the prisoners’ cells and other areas, as well as the escape route of Morris and the Anglin brothers. All access to the island is via the private ferry company Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33. Check out the gallery for some views of the prison, as well an intriguing shots of the escape route.

[Photo courtesy Bruce C. Cooper]

Explore The Unknown In Your Hometown On Obscura Day

“Travel” is an activity many of us associate with leaving home in search of the new and unfamiliar. But the truth is, there are some strange and wonderful sites in the places we live, often right under our nose. It’s the idea behind a great event called Obscura Day, kicking off its third year this April 28 in cities across the US and the world.

Sponsored by Atlas Obscura, a website devoted to exploring the world’s “wonders, curiosities and esoterica,” Obscura Day aims to give participants insider access to local curiosities they might have overlooked, including access to typically off-limits locations and “unusual” guided tours. For instance, explorers in Philadelphia are invited to tour the spooky abandoned Eastern State Penitentary. Meanwhile, in Boston, participants will have a chance to partake in a mysterious murder-themed scavenger hunt through the Museum of Science. In Alameda, California, gaming fans should check out this chance to play vintage 30s and 40s pinball machines at the Pacific Pinball Museum.

Wherever you happen to live, head over to the Obscura Day website and type in your zip code to find out what’s going later this month at a location near you. It’s sure to be a chance to rediscover the surprising history, unique attractions and unexpected activities you might otherwise take for granted in your hometown.

[Photo by Flickr user country_boy_shane]

Cruise ship prison? Not so fast say Scientology captors

cruise ship prisonA cruise ship prison story has been floating around about an Australian woman who says she was held for years against her will aboard the cruise ship Freewinds, a floating Scientology cathedral of sorts. To many, the idea of living aboard a cruise ship might seem like a dream come true. To Valeska Paris, held on the ship starting in 1996 then spending the next twelve years there against her will, it was much more a nightmare.

Paris joined Scientology’s Sea Organization, signing its standard billion-year contract at age 14. Three years later, after her stepfather committed suicide and her mother denounced Scientology on French television, Paris was ordered to “disconnect” from her family.

Paris was taken in by the Church of Scientology at age 17 then transferred to the Freewinds a year later. The Village Voice reports that for several months she was punished with an assignment in the ship’s engine room, where at one point she passed out from the noise and heat. During the first years of her imprisonment, an escort went with her whenever she left the ship but over time she was conditioned to believe there was no escape possible.

“When I first went there, I hated being there, and I wanted to leave,” Paris told the Voice. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I began to accept that that was the way it was going to be,” she says.

Paris compared the experience to that of of Jaycee Lee Dugard, held for 18 years in a California backyard and despite the ability to escape, felt resigned to being held captive.

“You’re so resigned to it,” said Paris. “I never had a bank account. You get 50 dollars a week. You don’t have a passport. If you want to leave the ship, you have to go down the gangway, and there’s a security guard there 24 hours a day.”

Valeska’s passport had been taken from her when she first boarded the ship, a procedure the church reportedly says was just routine.

“You were taught that Scientology was the only answer. You think you’re doing the right thing,” she says, adding that Sea Org members are constantly made to feel that they haven’t done enough to “clear the planet” for Scientology’s advancement. “They make you feel that you could always do more. I never really took any days off. That’s your whole life, basically.”

The Church of Scientology flat out denies the whole story saying

“Valeska Paris was a crew member aboard a ship.

All passports of crew members were held by the Port Captain in accordance with maritime regulations so they can be stamped in and out of ports as the ship sailed.

Valeska left the ship hundreds of times to go shopping, for outings with her husband on islands such as Aruba, St. Barts and Curaçao, as well as for numerous other reasons while aboard.

In 2001, she hosted six members of her husband’s family. She participated in extended projects in the UK, US and Denmark. She certainly wasn’t “forced” to be there.

She was also never forced to perform labor in the engine room.”

An exclusive report on the Australian Broadcasting Company program Lateline tells a different story:


UPDATE: Following publication of the story, the Church of Scientology reached out with the following comment:

The weblog posting concerning the Church of Scientology (“Cruise Ship Prison? Not so fast say Scientology captors”, November 30) is a repetition of a false tabloid story from Australia. Valeska Paris Guider was serving as a crew member aboard the Freewinds religious retreat as a volunteer, adult religious worker. She was there of her own free will as part of her religious commitment to the Church of Scientology. The Freewinds is a passenger vessel with hundreds of people aboard. Ms. Guider’s staff positions as a waitress, course instructor and staff counselor regularly placed her in contact with many parishioners and staff. She met and married her first husband there to whom she was married from 1998-2005 and who affirms her statements are false. She left the Freewinds hundreds of times to go shopping, for outings with her husband on islands such as St. Kitts, Aruba, St. Barts and Curaçao, as well as for numerous other reasons. She participated in extended trips to the UK, US and Denmark for which she passed through Immigration and Customs when entering and exiting these countries. Her claims are false.

The Freewinds, based in the Caribbean, is a religious retreat where Scientologists come for events, conventions, courses and spiritual counseling. The Freewinds is visited regularly by officials from the islands and countries it visits. It also serves as a training vessel and has become the regional authority on maritime security, training law enforcement and military personnel. A recent Meritorious Public Service Award from United States Homeland Security, awarded to the Freewinds by the United States Coast Guard describes the Freewinds as the “premier training platform throughout the Caribbean Basin.” It further acknowledges continuous instruction of Caribbean personnel in what is described as the “highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard’s core values-honor, respect and devotion to duty.” The Freewinds also helps to promulgate the Church’s humanitarian initiatives throughout the Caribbean region and has received numerous acknowledgements for its work in the fields of drug abuse education, human rights, morals education and literacy.

Based on the above reports from Lateline and The Village Voice, we’ll let you pick a side.

World’s craziest race – the Barkley Marathons


Barkley MarathonsWould you be tempted to enter a race that covers 100 miles, has no set trail, and only nine people have completed? How about if you add a cumulative elevation of over 59,000 feet – that’s twice that of Mount Everest, natural obstacles of all varieties including thorns and rats, and no aid or resting stations along the way? Hundreds have entered and attempted the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee each spring, known as one of the world’s most challenging races. Even if you “only” complete the 60-mile “fun run,” chances are you’ll come out bleeding, sleep-deprived, and a little insane (though perhaps no more so that when you agreed to enter this run) and if you give up, you still have a few hours’ walk back to camp.

This month, Believer Magazine has a fascinating account of the people behind this insane race and the culture that has developed along with it. Gary Cantrell – known as Lazarus Lake or just Laz – started the race 25 years ago, inspired by the prison escape attempt of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Junior’s assassin. Ray ran around the same woods for 55 hours during his attempt and made it only 8 miles, prompting Cantrell to imagine he could do at least 100 miles in that time. Now, Cantrell begins the race each year not with a starter pistol or bullhorn, but a lighter and a cigarette. Runners depart from Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, about 50 miles from Knoxville. There’s no set start time (runners camp out the night before and await the warning via conch shell from Cantrell) and runners have to chart their own course from a map made available the day before the race. Participants have 12 hours to complete each of 5 loops, and have to tear out a page matching their race number of a book on each loop to prove they made it.
You can read another account of the race on Runner’s World, and the author’s post-script is another amazing story: after attempting the Barkley and making a documentary about running across the Sahara Desert, he’s now serving prison time for mortgage fraud.

Still want to enter? Hope you have good Googling and writing skills – there’s no official website or entrance instructions and only 35 will be allowed in each year, after completing an essay called “Why I should be allowed to run Barkleys Marathons.” The race is held in late March or early April each year, giving would-be runners a head start on figuring out how to enter.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Michael Hodge