Humans decided a long time ago that we needed a place to house the people who refused to abide by the rules of society. Prisons were places to put people until they either learned the error of their ways or they died. But what a prison did behind its walls has varied greatly over time and space. Some prisons, especially modern ones, have taken bold steps to offer facilities and programs that are unique, and what we would consider abnormal, in an attempt to keep things running smoothly.
10. Leoben Justice Center
Designing a prison so that it looks pleasant and inviting is probably not a high-ranking priority for most people. But that doesn’t mean no one considers it. The Leoben Justice Center in Austria was designed to be both practical and aesthetically pleasing. It looks a bit like a modern museum from the outside. Inside, it looks like a school or a cool office building. There are floor to ceiling windows, and an openness to the entire design.
Prisoners have their own living spaces with balconies, albeit secure ones, and private kitchenettes. There are several courtyards and outdoor facilities on the secure grounds. Architect Josef Hohensinn designed the prison back in 2004 and rumor has it there are even artsy red chairs in the conjugal visit area. The philosophy behind the design was that people deprived of freedom still deserved dignity.
The design of the prison and its amenities have elicited many snide reactions from those on the outside who joke that the prison is nicer than some apartments, or that it looks like crime in Austria does pay. These kind of jokes seem obvious, but overlook the very real fact that this is a prison and the people in it have no freedom. So the trade off for having the equivalent of a small, one-bedroom apartment seems a little less luxurious when you figure in how no one is ever allowed to leave.
9. Château d’If
You have to travel back in time a bit if you want to experience the Château d’If, but it’s probably for the best that you can’t. France’s infamous equivalent of Alcatraz was the setting for The Count of Monte Cristo and for most prisoners was no walk in the park. But most is not all and for some, their stay was rife with some opulent French amenities.
A one time military fortress, the prison was built in the 1500s and housed numerous political and religious prisoners over the years. Like many other prisons where corruption is par for the course, there was a bit of a hierarchy here. Since the prison was designed as a fort, it had living facilities that were relatively lush and comfortable. It also had a dungeon. Common prisoners were held in this dungeon below ground in dark, dismal conditions. But higher brow prisoners, the kind with money or influence, could be housed in the fortress living quarters. These had bedrooms, fireplaces, and even quarters for servants.
If you’ve been on the internet for a few years, you probably already know Cebu prison. The facility in the Philippines went viral in the year 2007 when a video featuring a group of prisoners performing a choreographed dance routine to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” spread like wildfire.
Today that video has nearly 60 million views, and it was followed by many other videos. Orange jump-suited inmates dancing to Queen, the Black Eyed Peas and more. The routines were the idea of the prison’s security advisor, a man named Byron Garcia. Garcia had seen The Shawshank Redemption and really liked the scene in which Tim Robbins’ character plays an aria over the prison sound system. He thought the prisoners he worked with would benefit from some moving music as well. He played a Queen song and was delighted to see the inmates dancing.
The evolution of the dance routines was seen as a way to fill the days of the prisoners with something constructive. Hours of dance practice meant they were focused on doing something. It became part of prisoner rehabilitation.
Garcia left his post eventually and the dance rehab program was shaken up. It was suspended for a time, and then public shows were banned. They were then re-instituted on an irregular basis and while prisoners are not required to dance, they can and performances can still be requested.
7. Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP)
Also called Angola or the Farm, the Louisiana State Penitentiary has over 100 years of history and not many of them were pleasant. State executions and misery seemed to be hallmarks of most of the prison’s existence. That said, it still offers up a unique experience for some who find themselves stuck behind its walls.
LSP had a long history of music behind the walls of the facility. It was a plantation before it was a prison, and many inmates back in the 1930s were still working the land as punishment. Old slave songs had been preserved behind those walls and the prison’s tradition of music has been going strong ever since that time.
These days, LSP operates a radio station, the only prison in America with an FCC license to do so. It’s run by prisoners and was originally designed as a way to disseminate information across the large facility as fast as possible. Eventually, it became a real radio station with an emphasis on religious programming. These days it no longer plays music and focuses strictly on religious programming.
6. Pondok Bambu Penitentiary
Indonesia is not typically known as a haven for prisoners looking to have a relaxing time behind bars. That said, the right prisoner in the right prison can have an exceptionally good run. It’s not technically above board or standard practice in any way, except for the fact that it keeps happening.
At Pondok Bambu Penitentiary, if you have the money, you can have a hell of a prison experience. Back in 2009, government officials conducted a surprise inspection on the cell of a woman incarcerated for bribery. She wasn’t in the cell at the time because she was busy in another cell getting laser beauty treatments. What they did find was a private bathroom and a karaoke suite. She had a nanny as well, because apparently her baby was in prison with her.
Once the story went public, everything was shut down. Except… not really. Even though the warden and other officials were fired, word is that the same sort of system started up again in more recent years. Prisons are under-funded and employees don’t get paid a lot. When a wealthy prisoner makes an offer, it’s taken seriously.
5. Halden Prison
The European prison system is vastly different from the American one, and there’s something to be said for their approach. While American prisons seemed to be packed to the gills, European prisons tend to be far more sparsely populated. And when you compare recidivism rates, the numbers are staggering. Over 76% of US prisoners re-offended. Only about 20% do in places like Norway. Is the difference in how prisoners are treated? Maybe Halden prison holds some answers.
Halden is a high security facility in Norway, but their definition of high security does not really jibe with the North American perception. Prisoners all have private bathrooms and flat screen TVs. The facility is home to rapists and murderers. They eat meals with guards, things like heart-shaped waffles and fresh-brewed coffee. Cells have their own refrigerators and the windows, which don’t have bars, give a nice view of the forest.
Of course, the prison does have walls; the outer wall is a massive concrete structure that is all but un-climbable. But inside, things are kept chill. Why? Because there are no life sentences in Norway. These people will all go back to society one day, and the prison doesn’t think sending bitter and resentful men with a history of crime back into society is a good idea. Instead, it treats them well in the hopes they can be rehabilitated as useful members of society and so far, the numbers seem to back up the approach.
4. Suomenlinna Prison
Suomenlinna Island in Finland is home to Suomenlinna Prison. Like Halden, this is a very European sort of facility where treatment of prisoners is a lot more nurturing than what you’d find at places like Rikers Island.
The prison is built in an old fortress and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also the most popular tourist destination in Finland, which means tourists need to be turned away from entering the prison now and then.
Inside the facility, inmates are held back by a picket fence. Despite this, few of them ever try to escape for fear of being caught and sent to a different, less pleasant prison. Days are passed working the prison grounds for €8 an hour or taking classes. Inmates can unwind later in the day with a barbecue or a trip to the gym.
3. Kvíabryggja Prison
The Nordic countries continue their trend of offering unusual facilities and benefits to inmates at Iceland’s Kviabryggja Prison. Arguably the most distinguishing feature about it is that there’s no fence at all. You’re just expected to fulfill your responsibilities with little supervision.
That sounds crazy out of context, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Inmates here are serving out the final two years of whatever their sentence was. And working or attending classes is expected. In essence, it works like a halfway house, a transition period for prisoners before they are sent back to “real life.”
Prisoners cook the food here and eat with staff in a communal dining area. They’re even taken into town to do weekly grocery shopping. Doors are locked, but prisoners are the ones who have the keys. Most stay unlocked anyway.
2. San Quentin
The US has a lot of famous, or infamous, prisons. San Quentin is right near the top of that list. As California’s oldest prison, it’s been immortalized on film and in song and it features the largest death row in the country. Over 400 prisoners have been executed at the facility.
In addition to the doom and gloom of San Quentin, it also stands out for having one very rare feature that can only be found a handful of places in the world: it also features an inmate-run newspaper.
The paper has been around since the 1940s, though it hasn’t been smooth sailing the entire time. Some wardens have been less than enthused by the idea of prisoners having the ability to write and disseminate news. In the 1980s, the warden at the time shut the paper down entirely, but it was brought back again by a later warden. These days you can even read it online, though the prisoners who write it do not have open access to the internet.
The paper is considered a vital tool for communication behind the prison walls. The inmate journalists cover topics that are of interest to the incarcerated and deal with issues ranging from facilities to mental health and even calls for reform. Their mandate may change based on the warden in charge at the time, but in general it has existed to give a voice to prisoners without crossing a line to anything too provocative.
1. San Pedro
Few prisons in the world are as infamous as Bolivia’s San Pedro. The fact the facility still exists is actually hard to wrap your head around. The prison is more like a town run by the inmates. Those inside have jobs and not all of them are legal. One of the biggest sources of income for prisoners is selling cocaine to tourists. In fact, cocaine is produced on site and it may be the only prison on Earth that can openly boast of having such facilities.
Whole families live together in the prison, inmates as well as their non-incarcerated relatives. If you’re wondering why the guards don’t intervene, it’s because there technically aren’t any. The inside of the prison is entirely run by the inmates. Outside, guards prevent people from escaping, but that’s the extent of their involvement.
There’s a hotel in the prison where outside guests can stay, and the inmates have devised their own form of democracy complete with elections and votes. That said, sometimes people get stabbed in order to get their way, and it’s all par for the course.
Inside the walls, inmates can get jobs ranging from waiters to real estate agents, all based around the community and economy they have created for themselves.If a prisoner has enough money they can even live within a gated community and enjoy things like WiFi and jacuzzi tubs.
Taxes are collected to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the entire prison facility and everyone has to do their part or fall by the wayside. Those who commit crimes inside are subject to “community justice.” A man who killed a child within the walls was caught and beaten to death as punishment.