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]

Visit haunted prisons for a Halloween creep out

Old prisons look creepy in the day. In the dark, they can really spook you. Perhaps it’s those rusted locks, the way cell doors sound when they clank shut, the stairs where people don’t tread anymore. Add a hangman’s noose or an electric chair, and you have a real chills up your back shudder.

Pair a trip to a prison on Halloween and you’re in for some screaming good times.

Or, if you can’t swing by one of these prisons before Halloween, take in a night tour when you get the chance. Each of the these three prisons featured offers night tours year round. And each have tales of being haunted.

Haunted or not, I can vouch for their chill factor. I’ve visited each of them.

(photo of stairway at Mansfield Reformatory taken by thadman.)

My most recent visit was to the Mansfield Reformatory. In its heyday, the prison was a reformatory for boys but was closed in the 1980s.

This goreous gothic building that looks both elegant and forbodding even in daylight acquired its most recent fame as the setting for the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Through Halloween weekend there is a haunted house here that is a guareenteed screamfest. People under 13-years of age are not allowed.

The reformatory’s Night of the Evil Dead haunted house experience takes in most of the prison that is now a museum. I met some folks who had been on the tour the night before I visited here during the day. They loved it and mentioned several times how they felt hoarse from screaming.

I’ve been to Alcatraz Island in San Franciso twice. Although haven’t been on the night tour here either, in the daylight wandering through the rooms where the likes of Al Capone hung out creates a chill factor straight off.

Add in the tales of the guys who tried to escape by swimming for the distant shore but never made it, and you have another creepy detail. There’s also the soliary confinement cell where you can experience the dark in a way that is different than perhaps you are used to.

The night tours at Alcatraz are Thursday through Monday and include special talks around certain themes. How about the Shadow of Death? There are others from which to choose. A bonus of Alcatraz’s night tours is the view of San Francisco.

The view was terrific by day. If you do go on this tour any time of the year, whether during the day or night, make sure you bring warm clothes. Even in the summer it gets chilly.

I did take the night torchlight tour of the Fremantle Prison in Perth, Australia. Very cool. I was hanging out with a group of adolescent boys as a field trip chaparone. This age is a hard crowd to please, but I promise, they were pleased big time.

The Fremantle Prison, built in 1850 by convicts, was a place where British citizens who committed crimes were sent along with people who already lived in Australia and were naughty. Later the prison was used as a military prison.

The night view of this prison is quite imposing. Of all the places we visited in Western Australia, this was one of the highlights.