Throughout time prisons have been used to incarcerate a variety of people from hardened criminals to those who opposed the current political regime. A few of these prisons have become infamous due to their illustrious inmates, their barbaric treatment of prisoners and sometimes because of the daring escape attempts that some of their guests devised. An overview of the most famous prisons in the world.
The Hoa Loa Prison, sarcastically coined the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs, was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners. The North Vietnamese Army later used the prison to house prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Prisoners incarcerated there were subject to torture, starvation, and even murder. Well known figures such as Senator John McCain, James Stockdale and Bud Day were just a few of the many prisoners of war that spent time in this prison. In 1999 a Hilton Hotel opened in Hanoi and was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.
Converted in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge Regime from what was once a high school, Tuol Sleng is probably one of the most horrifying prisons in the world. Prisoners were routinely tortured in order to coerce a confession to whatever crime they had been charged with. Once they confessed and named any conspirators, they were then executed. Of the more than 17,000 people incarcerated of Tuol Sleng in the four years it operated, there are only a few known survivors. After the Vietnamese army uncovered the prison in 1979 Tuol Sleng was turned in to a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Port Arthur is a former convict colony in Tasmania, Australia. From 1833, until the 1850s, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals and rebellious inmates from other prisons. Today, many highly recognizable ruins remain, including the penitentiary, the hospital, the insane asylum, and a church built by the convicts. In 1996 Port Arthur became the site of Australia’s deadliest gun massacre when a single shooter opened fire on visitors, killing 35 people.
Built in 1492, Elmina Castle in Ghana is the oldest European building in existence south of the Sahara. For over three hundred years, it served as a holding area for people captured against their will to be sold into slavery. It was not uncommon for slaves to share a cell with as many as 200 others, cramped together with not even enough space to lie down. By the 18th century, over 30,000 slaves were passing through the Door of No Return each year.
Located just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island has served many functions over the years, including a leper colony at one point. However, it’s most known for serving as a prison under the apartheid regime. Well-known figures such as Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Motlanthe are just a few of political prisoners that spent time there.
Today Robben Island is a popular tourist destination and can be reached by ferry from Cape Town. The island is an important breeding area for a large African Penguin colony.
Thousands of slaves passed through Goree Island in Senegal before France abolished the slave trade in 1848. The Maison des Esclaves, better known as the House of Slaves, is just one of the places on the island that held slaves before they were put on ships bound for the New World. The museum now serves as a pilgrimage site for many African-Americans tracing their roots.
Chateau d’If in France is well-known through its use as a setting in the book “The Count of Monte Cristo” written by Alexander Dumas. From 1634 through the end of the 19th century, the chateau served as a dumping ground for religious and political prisoners. Following the custom of the time, prisoners with wealth or class received better treatment than less fortunate ones. However, they often had to pay for the privilege. It was demilitarized and opened to the public in 1890 and is now one of the most famous prisons in the world.
First opened in 1852 under Emperor Napoleon III’s reign, Devil’s Island penal colony is one of the most infamous prisons in history. During its 94 years of operation, this historic prison was home to everyone from political prisoners to hardened criminals. Prisoners that attempted escape faced the piranha-infested rivers and thick jungles of French Guiana. The autobiography of former inmate Henri Charrière describes numerous alleged escape attempts. In 1973 the book was made into the movie Papillon starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Now home to the British Crown Jewels and one of the top tourist attractions in England, the Tower of London served as a prison from 1100 to the mid twentieth century. This has led to the phrase “sent to the Tower”, meaning imprisoned. Famous prisoners include Sir Thomas More, King Henry VI, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (wives of King Henry VIII) and Rudolph Hess. The Tower of London is reputedly the most haunted building in England. There have been tales of ghosts, including that of Anne Boleyn, inhabiting the tower.
Alcatraz, perhaps the most famous prison in the United States, was the first maximum security minimum privilege prison of the country. It was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the time including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Located on a rocky island surrounded by the freezing water of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was believed to be inescapable. Of the 36 men that attempted escape, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed, and 2 drowned. The remaining 5 were never seen again after their escape attempt and it is believed that they drowned. Their bodies have never been recovered. Today, the island is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.