Whilst millions flock to historic prisons like Alcatraz and S-21 every year, Sasha Arms reports on one of the 21st Century’s most bewildering and controversial travel trends: visiting inmates at high security foreign jails.

Defunct prisons have long made for unlikely success stories in the world of tourism: sites like Alcatraz, Robben Island in Cape Town and S-21 in Cambodia have become pilgrimage points for curious travellers, with a pull almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge, Table Mountain and Ankor Watt, their traditional counterparts. Something in our human nature draws us to ponder the wretched plight of the prisoners who once occupied the empty cells, chalking up the years on bare stone walls, often enduring cold, hunger, beatings, torture and fear of death.

Facing up to a killer
Facing up to a killer

Wrestling the the ghosts of the past is one thing, but who can seriously imagine themselves visiting a fully functioning modern day prison abroad? Bribing your way in as a tourist and coming face to face with thieves, drug dealers and violent criminals? Sound outlandish? Well incredible or not ‘prison tourism’ has become one of the most bizarre travel trends to emerge on the backpacker trail in the 21st century…

San Pedro Prison in Bolivia may not be the first prison in the world to admit tourists, but it’s becoming one of the most renowned after a British drug-trafficker was imprisoned there in the late 90s. Thomas McFadden was shocked when he discovered how things really worked behind closed doors in the Latin American jail – notably that prisoners have to buy their own cells, rapists sent to the prison are apparently routinely murdered by fellow inmates, and that some of the purest cocaine in the world comes from inside the prison walls.

McFadden started prison life as a shopkeeper, before seizing on his lucrative tours idea
McFadden started prison life as a shopkeeper, before seizing on his lucrative tours idea

McFadden however found a way to use the widespread corruption to his advantage, and hatched a scheme to raise the $5,000 bribe money he needed to pay off his prison sentence. The plan? To take travellers on tours of the prison. Backpackers would pay McFadden a fee for the tour, and he would pay the guards a bribe to let them in, which generated enough money for him to survive and eventually get out. McFadden has long since left San Pedro (in 2000), but sensing the opportunity to carve a prison career for themselves (everyone needs one in San Pedro to pay their way), other inmates took over the prison tour trade, cashing in on the jail’s cult status that has followed in McFadden’s wake.

Spectators musing on the trend may wonder what possesses people to visit prisons. Is it a visceral strand of so-called ‘dark tourism‘, one which compels tourists to experience humanity being punished first-hand? There are some very mixed opinions about the matter, but backpackers passing through La Paz can’t escape the possibility of visiting San Pedro, such are the tours’ fame – they have even been listed in the Lonely Planet guide. The thought of such a visit repels some, who say that backpackers only do it for the satisfaction of being able to say they’ve been inside a Latin American prison – the travel kudos if you will. Whilst stories of visitors being robbed and getting stuck inside are enough to dissuade others. For many, however, it’s quite simply an opportunity not to be missed.

All smiles, but only two are leaving San Pedro today
All smiles, but only two are leaving San Pedro today

Erin Pelquest-Hunt, who had read Marching Powder by Rusty Young (the story of Thomas McFadden’s experience as a prisoner), found herself in the latter camp of people while travelling in Bolivia. “Most of the travellers I met in La Paz had been there or were planning on it. It had a bit of a cult following and didn’t sound unsafe at all,” she says. “One of the guys I had dinner with showed me this bracelet made by a prisoner, and I thought something like that would be a great souvenir to accompany an amazing story.”

Although Erin admitted that she was driven by morbid fascination as much as anything, it was something she ultimately couldn’t pass up: “Had I thought about it a bit more I may have decided against going, but travelling is all about new experiences. It sounded all a bit unbelievable, I mean everyone’s heard about prison tours but never in one that’s still operating, especially not one where everyone has jobs. It sounded so unique and something I would regret for the rest of my life if I passed it up, so there were no two ways about it. I had to go!”

Let the inmate win, is our advice
Let the inmate win, is our advice

Most visitors agree that it’s hard to tell that San Pedro is even a jail from the outside. Set next to a square in town, the only giveaway that San Pedro is a prison are a couple of guards and some watchtowers. Hearsay tells travellers to loiter in the square until someone approaches to invite them into the prison. Erin’s first impressions of the jail were of nothing spectacular – the guards couldn’t have cared less about them going in, prisoners were not wearing uniforms and the inmates seemed to just be sitting around, chilling out. “It really looked nothing like a prison at all, just a dirty, smelly community… There was even advertising for Coca-Cola.” Incredibly, Coca Cola provides the cash-strapped prison with tables, chairs and umbrellas in return for the exclusive right to advertise and sell its product line (proving you really can’t escape commercialism).

A typical San Pedro tour consists of a guide (usually a member of the strongest gang at the time) taking tourists to the different cell blocks, inside cells, to the cafés, bars, and to the artisans’ stalls for those much sought-after souvenirs. It’s generally a look around the prison in its daily normality. Including the cocaine production. “Every now and then an inmate would have a great big bag of coke sitting there in plain view,” Erin remembers. “I felt like telling some of them to hide it…that they could be sent to prison for that!”

Inmates' wives and children often come to live in the jail
Inmates' wives and children often come to live in the jail

Another ‘unique’ aspect of the prison is that inmates’ wives and children are also allowed to live there, and it’s not always easy for visitors to see children growing up in such an environment. And however ‘normal’ or non-threatening the prison may appear on the surface, it’s important to remember that that is not the case. You only have to read Marching Powder to remember the realities of what goes on inside a Latin American prison. Erin is also very clear about that: “While I felt safe being escorted down dark alleys, you certainly wouldn’t want to be there at night. You could scream bloody murder and no-one would hear.” She goes on to say that “it all felt very safe, and it was only the stories we were told about what went on at night that made us shiver from something other than the cold.”

Certainly the most famous, nonetheless the San Pedro story is not as unique as it sounds: word is starting to get out about other prison ‘experiences’ across the globe. Bang Kwang maximum security prison is just one institution in Thailand making a name for itself among travellers as a ‘must see’ on the backpacker trail (others are Klong Prem and Samut Prakan Central Prison). It’s home to the Thai death row, criminals in for the most serious offences including rape and murder…and generally a handful of Western prisoners at any one time. The trend of visiting Thai prisons started when the families of Western prisoners put up notices in hostels and guest houses, urging passing travellers to go and visit their loved ones because they couldn’t be there themselves all the time. Since then it has become almost ‘fashionable’ amongst backpackers to visit the convicts, and offer some company and goodwill to those with little left to hope for, deservedly or not.

The Angel of Bang Kwang comforts prisoners in the notorious Bang Kwang jail
The Angel of Bang Kwang comforts prisoners in the notorious Bang Kwang jail

Deciding whether or not to take advantage of a country’s corruption and visit a prison such as San Pedro seems to be more of a moral dilemma than a decision of free-will. The question is that of motivation. You could visit to inform yourself of a way of life and state of affairs, or to call-on lonely, scared prisoners who are far from home and desperate for friendly faces. Visiting San Pedro in particular helps to fund the inside economy. As everyone has to work to feed themselves, their families and pay their rent, tourists can help them survive on the inside – which is a basic human right. These are all very noble reasons. But how many prison tourists hide behind such a mentality, when all they really want to do is to tell their friends back at home how they visited a prison – an act that was potentially riddled with danger – and therefore all the more interesting to talk about in the pub? It’s difficult to know, and who would really admit to that anyway?

More Info

For the full account of the crazy sub-society of San Pedro Prison in Bolivia then obviously Marching Powder by Rusty Young is your main source, revealing everything from the cells so luxurious they resemble five-star hotel suites to the cocaine-addicted pets of the crack head inmates. Youtube turns up some interesting footage too, here and here, and the BBC chronicles San Pedro in this fascinating photo journal. For more on prison life in Thailand, your essential tomb is The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, the account of Australian Susan Aldous who has devoted much of her life to helping the inmates living in the ironically dubbed ‘Bangkok Hilton’.

Other Prison Stays & Experiences

The sinister interior of the Hotel Katajanokka
The sinister interior of the Hotel Katajanokka

If visiting (supposedly) high-security prisons isn’t on your travel agenda, there’s another much milder alternative to the prison tourism trend to throw into the mix. Jail houses such as Sainte-Anne in Avignon, France Malmaison Oxford and Hotel Katayanokka in Helsinki have all been converted into luxury hotels. At the latter, despite the wide range of mod-cons (no pun intended), all drinks are served in tin cups, guests are labelled with ‘guilty’ stickers and even given iron balls with chains to give them a small taste of what it was like to be an inmate.

For arguably the most bizarre strand of the prison tourism trend, look no further than Louisiana State Penitentiary. Thousands of law-abiding citizens flock to this jail every year for the Angola Prison Rodeo, to watch prisoners compete at everything from the saddle bronc to steer wrestling…

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