World's Strangest Prisons
It’s the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, IA, and from 1885 to 1969, this prison stacked its inmates in pie-shaped cells that revolved, so jailers could see all the prisoners from a single vantage point. If it sounds like a lazy Susan jail, that’s exactly what it was—and it’s the only one ever built.
Prisons have long been popular tourist destinations; famous spots like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Cape Town’s Robben Island, and the Clink in London allow travelers a glimpse at cities' infamous pasts—sometimes with a tour from former inmates. But other less-famous jails—often a bit more off the beaten path—have strange features or an odd history that equally warrant a detour.
Not every prison has kept its strange features intact. A 90-year-old former Turkish prison in Istanbul, for example, was transformed into the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet in 1996. And Boston’s former Charles Street Jail was opened as the Liberty Hotel in 2007, with features like floor-to-ceiling windows that inmates never enjoyed.
True, these hotels offer a unique opportunity to be surrounded by history. But to taste prison life as it once actually was, head to the Jailhotel in Lucerne, Switzerland. Its “unplugged” cells put guests behind the same heavy wooden doors as the inmates who were incarcerated here from 1862 to 1998. Fancier suites occupy the former prison library—with walls still lined with antique prison books—and there’s a rec room, where inmates once played cards and foosball.
Sometimes, these unusual prisons aren’t so well-maintained. Goli Otok, a Croatian prison on an island in the northern Adriatic Sea, has buildings crumbling from neglect. Today it’s a bit surreal wandering the barren landscape, but you can see the prison’s cinema, where inmates once watched propaganda documentaries, and its bowling alley, reserved strictly for wardens’ use.
If offbeat history is your passion, then unchain yourself from your sofa. These strange prisons offer the opportunity to explore—and sometimes spend the night in—truly unique places.
Cascades Female Factory, Tasmania, Australia
Sure, Australia was essentially one big jail cell in the 19th century, but this prison in Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, was one of the few for females only. In operation from 1828 to 1856, it was home to more than 5,000 female convicts and their children, many of whom died from poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, and back-breaking work.
What You’ll See: Check out the matron’s cottage (the only original building still standing) and the memorial gardens, modeled after formal European gardens that Cascades’ inmates might once have enjoyed in a previous life.
Hostel Celica, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Plenty of old jails are turned into hotels, but how many maintain their original prison bars on the doors and windows? You'll get a real taste of prison life every time you push open the bars to get to your room. Inside, though, is much nicer décor than what the inmates had: each of the 20 former prison cells has a unique design, created by a team of more than 50 Slovenian and international artists.
What You’ll See: The hostel’s ground floor contains three cafés that serve everything from booze to hookahs. Also, be sure to check out the two former solitary-confinement cells that remain intact in the basement.
Dartmoor Prison, Devon, England
Sure, American prisoners of war have been held all over the world at various times. But it’s unusual to find a history of American POWs on the turf of such a longtime ally. See how this history played out at the Dartmoor Prison, which housed captured U.S. soldiers during the War of 1812.
What You’ll See: Although Dartmoor is still an active prison, serving mainly as an educational facility for inmate rehabilitation, it has a museum that displays uniforms and hairstyles once required for inmates and prison officers, plus weapons used by officers to keep inmates in line.
Goli Otok, Croatia
The buildings of Goli Otok are spread over an uninhabited Croatian island near the island of Krk. Wandering through the crumbling structures on the barren island is a surreal experience that offers an insight into the reign of Josip Broz Tito, Communist leader of former Yugoslavia.
What You’ll See: Check out the administration building—affectionately called “the hotel” by inmates—and a combination bowling alley and movie theater.
Hotel Jail, Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne’s picturesque city center is home not only to its famous Chapel Bridge and Lion Garden, but also to the Hotel Jail, a converted 19th-century prison that offers some of Switzerland’s strangest accommodations. “Unplugged” cells—actually guest rooms—let you experience what living conditions here once were like.
What You’ll See: If they’re not occupied, check out the prison’s former library—now a suite whose walls are lined with antique prison books—and the Barabas suite, a former rec room decorated with an inmate’s mural illustrating life after a jailbreak. Also stop by the hotel’s Knascht Club, one of Lucerne’s weekend hot spots.
Who would have thought inmate labor could create Langholmen, one of Stockholm’s prettiest islands? Originally a rocky, barren island occupied by two prisons, inmates covered it in mud during the 18th century, creating fertile soil where beautiful gardens eventually grew. Today it is a green oasis popular for walks, picnics, and swimming.
What You’ll See: The “From Crime to Chains” museum traces Langholmen’s 250-year prison history. If you want to stay overnight, you can choose between a hotel in the former old jail and a less expensive youth hostel, in the former Crown Remand Prison.
The Old Montana Prison, Deer Lodge, MT
One of the weirdest pieces of prison equipment anywhere resides here: the galloping gallows, a portable gallows built in 1920. Each part of the gallows was designed to be easily dismantled and “galloped,” or moved quickly, to the next hanging site.
What You’ll See: The prison’s grounds—where at least one member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch was incarcerated—have captured Hollywood’s imagination, serving as the set for films like 1985’s Runaway Train, with Jon Voight, and 1992’s Diggstown, starring James Woods and Louis Gossett, Jr.
The Squirrel Cage Jail, Council Bluffs, IA
The Squirrel Cage Jail of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, is a one-of-a-kind contraption, the only three-story, revolving squirrel-cage jail—also known as a human rotary or lazy Susan jail—ever built. The jail has three floors of revolving, pie-shaped cells inside a cage.
What You’ll See: The prison cells, which jailers could view from a single vantage point, remain much as they were when the jail closed in 1969; signatures and dates of many prisoners still adorn the walls.
Vieille Prison de Trois-Rivières, Trois-Rivières, Quebec
If you can round up a group, try the “Sentenced to One Night” program at this 19th-century prison. After being greeted by Trois-Rivières’ warden, you’ll be booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and issued a prisoner’s T-shirt. You’ll then spend the night in the incarceration wing, which you will be forced to clean the next morning before eating a bare-bones breakfast of porridge and toast.
What You’ll See: If you’re here just for a tour, you’ll get one from former inmates. Open from 1822 to 1986, Trois-Rivières was once Canada’s oldest functioning prison.