Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's prison
Located in South Africa off Cape Town, the infamous prison island is accessed by boat, and still under supervision. Nelson Mandela, its most illustrious resident, was locked in there for 18 years (over an incarceration period of 27 years) before his release in 1990.
Guards have now been replaced by tourists, but the bars are still blocking the windows, remnants of a troubled past. This past is being told during visits by a former inmate, recounting daily labour, lack of food, beatings and much more… The story will give you goosebumps. Have a look at cell 466/64, which is the most photographed. The 8 x 7 feet space barely allowed Mandela to move. Upon release, Mandela would become President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
In the same section, numerous other cells would gather political prisoners dreaming of a better world, without apartheid. The prison was indeed at the time a sort of laboratory where the basis of democratic ideas were being put together.
Robben Island Museum
Private Bag Robben Island
7400 Cape Town
+27 (0)21 413 4200
Alcatraz, silence, action!
The Rock, as it was nicknamed, is San Francisco Bay's legendary former prison. Used in multiple films, the location was the last residence of various infamous prisoners, including Al Capone. Over the years, Alcatraz has become the symbol of that prison no one escapes. Except maybe in the movies. In 1979, Don Siegel directed a film telling the escape of Frank Morris – played by Clint Eastwood – and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The convicts managed to enlarge air vents with spoons and then crossed the icy waters on a boat made of rain jackets. Despite an extensive manhunt, the fugitives have never been found. A few months after the incredible escape, the 30-year-old high-security prison definitely closed its doors. Alcatraz is now one of the main attractions in San Francisco. Artist Ai Weiwei recently exhibited seven installations here, including Lego portraits of 176 political prisoners.
Bay Street and Embarcadero
Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing
San Francisco, CA 94133
+1 415 981 7625
The Château d'If, in the footsteps of the Count of Monte-Cristo
Celebrated by Alexandre Dumas and his incredible Edmond Dantès character (also called Count of Monte-Christo), the Château d'If is one of the most popular sites in Marseille, counting over 100,000 visitors each year. This huge fortress stands on the eponymous island, off the Mediterranean Sea in the Frioul archipelago. From Marseille, it takes about 20 minutes to reach the castle and fortifications, built between 1527 and 1529 under King Francis I as the first royal fortress of Marseille. With a square base upon three floors and three flanking towers – each pierced with wide doorways – the structure was turned into a prison as soon as 1540. This almost impenetrable building protected by high walls offered appalling living conditions to four centuries of convicts. The walls still bear the mark of famous guests, such as the Marquis de Sade, the Count de Mirabeau and, of course, the fictional Monte-Cristo.
The site was listed as historical monument in 1926.
Embarcadère Frioul If
1, quai de la Fraternité
The last relics of slavery on Gorée Island
15 minutes away from Dakar by boat, you'll find the “memory island” of Gorée. History awaits you at the memorial of the Slave House, the last place slaves where gathered at after being captured and before being sent to their final destination. The cramped cells provide visitors with a poignant idea of the living conditions imposed upon the captives.
If you feel adventurous, wander down the narrow streets of the island. Everything can be explored by foot as no vehicle runs here! You may just as well stroll along old colonial houses, overflowing with bougainvillea. It is impossible to get tired of their pastel-like balconies and façades.
Further south, the granite plateau presents another side of the island, a sort of geographical metaphor of its terrible past. At night, sheltered from the hustle and bustle, you'll feel a strange and serene sensation while gazing at the Dakar city lights in the distance.
Devil's Island, in the inferno of Cayenne's penal colony
Dreyfus, Seznec, “Papillon”… and many other infamous names abound. Numerous films and stories have been made about these island convicts whose suffering is closely linked to the history of the tightly ran penal colony located on the Iles du Salut facing Cayenne. Under the French Second Empire and starting from 1854, some 70,000 convicts did their time in often inhumane conditions. One had to wait till 1938 under the Daladier government for a decree to close the prison, which actually became effective in 1947.
The decaying installation, located under the trajectory of Ariane rockets, became the property of the CNES (National Centre for Space Studies) for their strategic position. Tourism and the will to preserve this heritage explain why the Dreyfus House and several cells have been restored. As for the warden's house, it has been converted into the prison's Museum.
Îles du Salut
Musée du Bagne
Imprisoned rebels at Cork City Goal
In the centre of Cork, about a three-hour-drive from Dublin, seeing the walls of the former women's prison will send shivers down your spine. Although it was deemed the most modern prison of all three British kingdoms (consisting in England, Scotland and Ireland) when inaugurated in 1824, Cork City Goal has scared anyone who came anywhere near for more than a century. During its first years, men, women and children were lock up before it became a women's prison in 1878. It was closed due to insalubrious detention conditions by the Cork government in 1923.
Now converted into a museum, it will lead you through a maze of cells, spread over three floors connected by an iron staircase that makes anyone's head spin. During the guided tour, various re-enactments will immerse you in this ruthless world. You'll see convicts locked in genuine cells for instance. If you're looking for a thrill, you could even take their spot behind bars! There's no better way to assess the effect detention conditions may have had at the time. A spooky experience!
Cork City Goal
Sunday's Well, Cork
+353 21 430 5022