Going to prison sucks under any circumstances, but at the very least you might end up in a place with some interesting history. We’ve told you before about how the world is surprisingly full of unique and outright bizarre prisons. There are so many, in fact, that we’re here to tell you about even more of them…
9. Squirrel Cage Jail, Iowa
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be locked away in a giant rotating soup can, you can take a trip to the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Also known as a Lazy Susan jail, this prison was intended to be run as cheaply as possible in order to avoid forcing the good people of Council Bluffs to cough up more taxes, and nowhere is this more apparent than the design. Three floors high and built in a circle, the jail had ten pie slice shaped cells per floor that could be turned by a hand crank. This allowed a total of up to 270 prisoners to be watched over by only three guards, who presumably all had one seriously swole arm. It also made escaping more troublesome for the inmates, but that didn’t stop some determined people, one of whom pulled a Shawshank Redemption-style getaway through the sewage line.
Despite the efficiency, the rotation did pose a danger to prisoners, who could get trapped or have their limbs crunched by the mechanism if they got caught mid-rotation, and the building sitting on a water table also made stability questionable. The prison was operated from 1884 to 1969, until the town’s fire marshal shut it down over safety concerns. Today it functions as a tourist landmark with paranormal tours, which are highlighted by ghosts of cats and dumb jailbirds with bad timing.
8. Fortezza Medicea, Italy
Most people wouldn’t want to accept anything from someone currently in prison, no matter what it is. But in an extraordinary show of trust from the people of Volterra, Italy, their local prison, Fortezza Medicea, is also the site of a restaurant for a few select times per year, completely staffed by prisoners. It’s just one of the prison’s programs to train their residents for life outside the system (they also have a tailor’s workshop, a school, and a theater inside), but it’s become the most famous. It raises a ton of money for charity, and local chefs have even started working alongside the inmates.
It is still a prison, though – would-be diners have to pass a background check before the bread basket even hits the table, and on arrival you will be searched, run through a metal detector and have to leave your phone and bag. Up above the diners, armed guards will watch you eat. Of course, that assumes you even make it there at all, since tables are booked long in advance.
Just make sure to remember your manners if you do go, because these inmates will probably do a lot worse than spit in a rude guest’s food.
7. Black Dolphin Prison, Russia
Any edgy 20-year-old could come up with a prison name way more intimidating than Black Dolphin, but in this case, the name is less important than what is inside. Black Dolphin is the last home of Russia’s absolute worst criminals, and everyone inside is serving at least a life sentence. There is a fantastic variety of terrible human beings, like murderers and terrorists, but Black Dolphin’s king dick has to be Vladimir Nikolayev, who killed a man in a fight, cooked and ate him just for the hell of it, then gave it to a friend’s family and told them it was kangaroo, which is somehow the most implausible part of the story.
As you can imagine, the guards at Black Dolphin take their job very seriously and go to some strenuous lengths to keep the residents from escaping. Not only do they keep cameras on the cells around the clock, but when a prisoner needs to be taken somewhere, the guards force them to walk hunched down and blindfold them when they go outside, to keep them from learning the lay of the land. All that aside, even this band of psychos get to have some kind of arts and crafts time, as they built the prison’s namesake statue that sits out front.
6. Aranjuez Prison, Spain
Jail is a difficult thing enough for the prisoners, but it can add their struggles to their families on the outside, especially if young children are involved. In most countries, that would just be one of the prices of being a criminal, but Aranjuez Prison in Spain decided that was too much punishment.
In 1998, the prison introduced a novel policy of allowing inmates to live behind bars with their young children, housed in large “five-star cells,” which feature double beds, cribs, and Disney characters plastered everywhere. Prisoners’ kids are allowed to live with their parents up to the age of three, after which they have to return to their relatives, before they get too much of an understanding of where they are. But while they are there, they are treated extremely kindly, being provided toys, a playground, and even a doctor on staff will pay a visit, while the children will play with each other during the day.
Granted, prison is no place to raise a child, and both Aranjuez’s staff and prisoners will admit this. But the prisoners are grateful for this time with their families, and it just might be the key to taking them off the dark paths they were on for good.
5. San Pedro Prison, Bolivia
In a system that’s akin to Arkham City, the famed San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia is startlingly permissive in what their residents can do. Inside San Pedro, a prisoner can live with their family, run a business, and even participate in the prison’s representative democratic government. And those are just some of the things within the rules. Inmates are expected to pay rent to be incarcerated, so a lot of different hustles go on inside that range from the legal and aboveboard (chapels, restaurants and food stalls,) to the hilariously illegal (making extremely pure cocaine and a full on brothel).
And of course, money makes the stay better. The prison is divided into five sections, which are segregated based on wealth. The lowest income prisoners live in claustrophobic “coffins” with up to five people jammed inside one room, while the high rollers have spacious rooms with Internet access, hot tubs, and personal kitchens. For some though, that isn’t enough. A notorious cocaine trafficker went so far as to add a whole second story to his place at his own cost.
For a time, tourists were even allowed to come in the prison, thanks to an enterprising British prisoner named Thomas McFadden, who spoke no Spanish and thus had a hard time making money inside, and giving tours allowed him to support himself until the guards shut him down. Today, tourists are officially banned from the inside, but slipping the right person some money might still get you in. Or just ask someone at Coca-Cola, they have a sponsorship deal!
4. Chateau d’If, France
The early French beta test of Alcatraz, the Chateau d’If sits on an island outside the coast town of Marseille, and for a few hundred years, it was a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners that the powerful in France really wanted to go away.
The Chateau didn’t have to be too bad a stay – as long as you had the money for an upgrade. Rich prisoners were allowed cells towards the top of the prison that could feature nice scenic views or cozy fireplaces to snuggle by. Of course, the peasants got cold underground levels with rats for friends.
Interestingly, the Chateau’s most famous prisoner never actually set foot inside of the prison, at least not in the real world. In the beginning of Alexandre Dumas’ famous book The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantès is framed as a traitor to France and shipped off to the Chateau D’If to rot for the rest of his days. We won’t spoil the book (or the movie) for you, but let’s just say he didn’t hang around for too long. That hasn’t stopped Dumas fans from visiting, though, and the prison’s made sure to make a cell the future Count would have been living in just for them.
3. Cereso Chetumal, Mexico
For all the stereotypes about the horror of Mexican jail, the Cereso Prison in Chetumal, Mexico is so luxurious you’d half expect it to be run by Norwegians. It gives inmates stress relieving Swedish and Reiki massages and conjugal visits, though those two things (probably) aren’t mixed.
In return for these gifts, those who stay at the Cereso are expected to work at giving themselves some skills on the outside. An inmate can not only learn how to become an artist and make their own creations there, they can sell them for profit. Or if handmade trinkets aren’t their speed, there are IT classes for the budding tech bros, sports teams for the jocks, and a large, well stocked prison library for the jailhouse lawyers.
But the Cereso’s most interesting feature is based around conflict resolution. Instead of demanding that a bunch of criminals forced to live together just try and get along, Cereso decided to acknowledge the reality that fights are going to be an issue, and set up an entire boxing ring. If anybody in the prison has a problem with someone, both parties lace up gloves and boots and go however many rounds it takes to work it out. It may not be teaching them that violence is not the answer, but it’s better than getting a shiv to the kidney.
2. APAC Prison, Brazil
The idea of a prison without guards seems to be inherently useless, like making a sandwich without any bread. But just as pretentious chefs decided to jack with that time honored formula, so too did a group of Brazilian Catholics undertake to create a prison system that nobody needs to keep an eye on. Thus, the creation of the Association for Protection and Assistance to Convicts (APAC), which debuted in 1972 and now has 49 facilities across four countries.
However, it’s not like you can just go straight into APAC just because you committed a crime in Brazil, or the other countries they operate in. To be selected for this system, you have to show remorse for your bad deeds and a hustle to get your life back on track while inside the regular Brazilian prison system. That’s a tough set of qualities to have, especially in their famously overpopulated and violent facilities where virtue is secondary to basic survival.
Once you do arrive, however, the system becomes much more humane. Residents are not referred to as prisoners or inmates, instead they are christened “recuperandos” — or recovering persons. Work and study are considered sacred to the program, and thus recuperandos are not allowed to stay in their cells barring illness or naughtiness. The recuperandos are also given an incredible amount of trust, being allowed to wear whatever wardrobe they prefer, cooking their own food, and even being allowed keys to the building, which surely will send any cops or prison guards reading this into shivers.
Surprisingly, CPAC has been a success, with low rates of recidivism, less expensive budgets, and inspired people who feel reborn inside the walls.
1. Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, Philippines
Given that the word “rehabilitation” is in the name of the Cebu Center, it’s obvious that is the primary mission of this Filipino prison. But where most correctional facilities might employ twelve step programs, counseling, or just the good old fashioned method of a radiator and a handcuff, Cebu wants you to shake your demons away to pop songs.
It all stems from a compulsory dance program created by Byron Garcia, the warden. Starting in 2006, he began uploading YouTube videos of the detainees performing routines to a wide swath of music, from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to Korean pop, and even Gregorian chants. The videos went viral, amassing millions of views and put a massive spotlight on Cebu and the residents, which eventually would culminate in a Netflix documentary called Happy Jail.
It’s not a completely idyllic life there, however, as the prison has also had to deal with overcrowding, a pretty common issue in the Philippines’ system. Cebu has attracted criticism from human rights groups and former inmates, who claim that the prison uses the program as cover for inhumane treatment.