Popular Penitentiaries: A Guide to Prison Tours

Popularized on the big screen and in novels throughout the ages, Alcatraz prison in the San Francisco Bay Area is still a popular tourist attraction.

Known as The Rock, even though Clint Eastwood and his gang were able to Escape From Alcatraz on film, the characters they are based on in real life are MIA and presumed drowned in the chilly, sometimes shark-infested waters surrounding the penitentiary. 

Visiting a prison–whether it’s no longer housing inmates or still locking up criminals–provides a fascinating look at “life on the inside.” There are a number of these venues available to curious tourists. Here are four penitentiaries worthy of a tour and trip down felony lane.

1. Devil’s Island

Another isolated institution, Devil’s Island was immortalized in books and films as home to Henri “Papillon” Charriere. Convicted of murder in 1913, the alleged safe-cracker, pimp, and petty thief escaped the penitentiary after 13 years of captivity.  Located six nautical miles of the coast of French Guiana, the tropical environment was considered torture for inmates trapped on the island.

2. Folsom Prison

Another jailhouse immortalized for posterity, Johnny Cash put this penitentiary on the map when he released Folsom Prison Blues and later performed the song live for inmates in 1968. While tourists aren’t allowed behind bars, visitors to this famous penitentiary will uncover the bloody history of this facility at the Folsom Prison Museum. Opened in 2011 on the outskirts of Sacramento, attendees will view a hangman’s noose, Gatling gun, and the old obligatory ball-and-chain.

3. Hoa Lo Prison aka The Hanoi Hilton

The Hoa Lo Prison was given the ironic nickname of The Hanoi Hilton when it was “home” to hundreds of inmates during the Vietnam War. Often housing up to 2,000 prisoners in a space meant for 600 people, the shackles used to lock up residents are still on display. Although horror stories include torturous interrogations and horrific, well-documented accounts by POWs, the museum mostly concentrates on Vietnamese revolutionaries, some of whom were executed at the prison.

4. The Tower of London

Few venues offer visitors views of a royal palace, historic fortress and home of an infamous prison all in one location. The Tower of London was originally built by William the Conquer to assert his power and protect the city from attack. Later used as a prison primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, it later inspired the chilling phrase of being “sent to the Tower.”