Prison Tourism: Walking Beyond the Bars - Touring Week

By Nicole Stinson

Photo courtesy of Andrea.

While inmates are trying to get out of prison, tourists are flocking in great numbers to get inside.

Around the world, prisons are increasingly opening their gates to tourists — and the surprise is that it is not only the inactive or museum-converts that are attracting visitors.

Prison tourism is labeled by academics as “dark tourism” or “thanatourism” writes Carolyn Strange, Deputy Head of the School of History at the Australian National University. Participants consume death and distress as part of their tourist experience.

So what is the appeal behind these places of punishment?

David Brown, an Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, Australia, tells BTR that tourists are often drawn to the highly seductive nature their dark imagination, and that prisons are a means to explore this. Prison tourism plays into “the cult of celebrity, to the notorious or infamous prisoner and their crimes, to spectacular escapes, to prison violence and murders, to the gallery of weapons, to facile jokes about dropping the soap in the shower, and so on,” says Brown.

In the United States, Alcatraz in its penitentiary days boasted notorious gangsters and murderers such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud; now it attracts more than a million visitors each year.

The Eastern State Penitentiary’s stone fortress walls, which also housed Al Capone, attract 250,000 tourists annually, while Missouri State Penitentiary has become the new hot spot for ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts.

In Australia, the Old Melbourne Gaol compels 140, 000 tourists into its prison cells each year. As the site of 133 hangings, including the iconic bushranger Ned Kelly, the tourism experience is complete with a hangman’s rope with trap door. Oh and do not forget the plaster death masks of those executed.

Not to be outdone, the United Kingdom’s Tower of London attracts over 2 million visitors with its sinister history of beheadings and executions; although, housing the British Royal Crown Jewels probably adds to its popularity.

Converted to museums, these prisons say as much about their country’s history and culture as do cathedrals and castles. Tourists are able to enter the cells, explore the exercise yards and read about the prison procedures, safely knowing that it has been many years since murderers, rapists and notorious gangsters have walked these corridors. For many tourists, this is as far as they will delve but for others this is only just the beginning.

Of active prisons today that are far less amicable to visitors, several people have successfully broken into and toured the active San Pedro Prison in Bolivia. Todd Sullivan, founder of the travel agency platform Flightfox and adventurer, organized the dangerous break-in in 2010.

“Most people don’t understand the appeal but it’s mostly the adventure,” Sullivan tells BTR.

In his blog posting on, Sullivan describes the initial scam and the complex admittance procedure.

“We naively thought this whole process was completely ‘black ops’. You know, under the counter, off the books, behind closed doors, smoke and mirrors, 007 all the way. It turns out that it’s not. It’s just a nice money earner for everyone involved: the guards, the inmates, the prison bosses, even the scam artists. It was all very organized and process driven.”

San Pedro Prison was made famous by the book Marching Powder. Co-author Thomas McFadden, a British inmate, served a four-year drug trafficking sentence and was responsible for much of the hype surrounding the tours.

Some who have successfully managed to get inside San Predo Prison have even braved the no-photography policy, such as Youtube user yeseron, who has posted his experience online. The footage features interviews with inmates about their experiences.

“I can say that it was one of the most educational, emotional and adventurous experiences of my life,” says Sullivan. “I’d highly recommend it to anyone; it’s a real eye-opener, in a good way, and it’s a lesson in humanity.”

A recent report by BBC reveals these tours may end after the Bolivian government announced its plans to close the prison from July 18th. As of now, no further updates have been given.

Another prison still accepting tourist visitors is Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC), located in the Philippines.

In 2007, CPDRC gained international fame through their YouTube hit “Thriller”. Inmates were filmed dancing to the Michael Jackson song as part of a rehabilitation process and the video has attracted over 50 million views. Subsequent videos include the CPDRC inmates’ rendition of Souja Boy’s “Crank That”, MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”, and Psy’s “Gangnam Style”.

Tourists are welcomed into CPDRC on the final Saturday of every month to watch the inmates perform for free. Starting at 3 p.m., the inmates showcase 15 dances and afterwards willing visitors are encouraged to enter the yard for a prisoner-led dance lesson and photographs.

Former local congressman Mong Palatino tells BTR that he regrets that these performances still exist.

Louisiana State Penitentiary also hosts rodeos for tourists every Sunday during October and the third weekend in April. Cathy Fontenot, Assistant Warden and spokesperson, tells BTR that both prison staff and well-behaved inmates attend and participate in the rodeos. These events attract more than 70,000 visitors each year.

“Spectators visit from all around the world to attend and since they are allowed to drive through the grounds to the arena, they get to see the prison,” Fontenot says. “They are able to speak with inmates who sell arts and crafts and those who play music and sell concessions”.

Money collected from rodeo tickets is used to help fund rehabilitative needs of the inmate population and maintain the facility. The penitentiary also hosts a golf course on its grounds, which is open to visitors.

There has been some controversy surrounding the touring and participation in active prisons, particularly in regards to its ethical nature.

Forensic psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, David Bright, tells BTR, “I would also be concerned about the motivation of people who would want to visit prisons for the purpose of tourism.”

“I expect much of the motivation is voyeurism, rather than a sincere desire to understand the prison system more keenly,” he says. “Primarily, I would have concerns about the confidentiality of inmates — despite their criminal activities, they have a right to privacy.”

David Brown suggests there could be a positive outcome if “learning and connection can take place through a conversation that is usually denied to the prisoner.”

With prison tourism on the rise, the appeal of walking behind bars raises some important questions about how far tourism will go. How willing are people are to interact with others convicted of murder, rape, and other crimes? Maybe the appeal lies in the visitors’ choice to come and go as they please. For inmates incarcerated, they are not as lucky.