Who wants to go to jail?

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on May 15, 2020

Behind bars: The 19th-century prison at Falun in Sweden makes for an eccentric holiday   -  ZAC O’ YEAH

From Sweden to England, Turkey to India, jail tourism has many takers

* Dark or jail tourism is an emerging global trend

* From medieval gaols to Nazi prisons, visitors have a wide range to choose from

* In Sangareddy district jail near Hyderabad, tourists pay ₹500 for a 24-hour confinement

Don’t misjudge my character, but I’ve been to jail — voluntarily putting up in a 19th-century prison for morbid reasons I can barely fathom in hindsight.

Checking in with trepidation at Falu Fängelse, I dragged my feet upstairs to a hall with shaggy couches, a typical prison day-room. Unlocking the iron door to my cell, I noticed how the suffocating thickness of the walls presented a vivid contrast to a slice of sky above Sweden’s picturesque heartland province of Dalarna, with the scenic city of Falun below. All this was visible through claustrophobic window bars. It had got to be the safest room I’d lodged in.

Closed down in 1995 and reopened as a hostel, this penitentiary preserved in its grotto-like basement a pillory for public whipping and assorted shackles. Instead of attached bathrooms, there was a communal shower. As a consequence, the no-frills ambience made accommodation cheap enough for my budget (SEK560/₹4,280). The other good news was that coffee was complimentary and I stepped out whenever I wished (unlike jailbirds).

It strikes me that post lockdown, I’ll miss the corona-induced calm. Luckily, holidays behind bars, or “dark tourism”, is an emerging global trend — guests can get sloshed on craft beer in erstwhile “drunk cells” or check into Ottawa’s former death-row cells in Canada or the Karosta Nazi prison in Latvia, which promises uncomfortable cots, drab Soviet buffets and vile wardens.

For those wary of stifling room-sizes, other ex-prisons offer swankier comforts: You’d barely believe you’re inside a jail at Katajanokka, a Finnish prison, which released its last inmates in 2002; or the Netherlands’ Het Arresthuis (a detention centre until 2007); the medieval gaol Malmaison in Oxford; Four Seasons’ prison hotel in Istanbul’s old town; or Protea Breakwater Lodge with views over Cape Town’s bay. For a timid peek, correctional facilities the world over welcome visitors who haven’t committed crimes. Among the more spectacular, the Stasi headquarters in Berlin ranks high. It employed 91,015 staff to, in truly Orwellian style, keep eyes on “dissidents” and its prison showcases spooky interrogation rooms alongside scary torture chambers. The Chicago Police Centre is a delightfully non-pedagogic paean to Al Capone’s gangster wars, with an electric chair that I tried (after checking that the power was off).

India may also attract tourists similarly. The Kolkata Police Museum exhibits evidence from high-profile investigations such as the 1912 assassination attempt on a viceroy and a machine gun surrendered at the feet of MK Gandhi by repentant rioters in the 1940s, while Ahmednagar’s military garrison preserves the cell where Jawaharlal Nehru wrote The Discovery of India. South Asia’s largest maximum-security prison, Tihar, in Delhi, plans to rent out special cells for ₹2,000; guests will sleep on the floor like the 15,000 inmates and participate in 5am exercises such as kitchen duty. That project is modelled on the up-and-running Nizam-era Sangareddy district jail (70km from Hyderabad), where tourists pay ₹500 for a 24-hour confinement.

These establishments don’t, however, serve grit-tempered gruel, mealie pap or stewed bedbugs. For example, Sangareddy jail cooks up pretty much what your mother-in-law might: Idlis for breakfast, while rice with sambar or curry constitutes the dining menu. During my stay at Falun prison, I saw other lodgers use communal kitchens, like the cash-strapped Russian cigarette smugglers who boiled pots of spaghetti every day; but I preferred to seek nourishment outside the tall walls. The overwhelming feeling in Falun is that time stopped ages ago and forgot to restart. Streets are lined with wooden cottages and the town’s main attraction is a 1,000-year-old copper mine, once the world’s biggest. It clocked 800 deadly accidents. One youngster’s corpse was well preserved in the netherworld for more than 40 years. He was identified by a geriatric crone in 1719, as her teenage lover who went missing one fine day.

Lockdown: Shackles and metal restraints on display in the prison at Falun, Sweden   -  ZAC O’YEAH


Guided tours take visitors in hard hats 220ft below into hellish tunnels connecting dimly lit caverns, and I soon got very hungry thinking of how the mines also provided Sweden’s favourite dish falukorv, a lightly smoked sausage. In olden days, ox hides were twined into ropes for hoisting up the ore, while the slaughtered beasts resulted in mountains of meat, which were turned into these iconic sausages. The Unesco World Heritage mine had several classy tea rooms for dainty snacking, but I took a 10-minute walk downhill to Dalarna Museum, through quaint alleys lined with workers’ quarters, now gentrified but still painted in the red brick tones one sees across Falun.

The museum’s brick-walled dungeon-café offered typical workday lunches for SEK85 (₹640) with an all-you-can-eat buffet of seasonal vegetable and wholesome fish au gratin, Swedish meatballs and pyttipanna (hash-fried meat and veggies). Other vegetarian options included root-crop burgers or vegan pea soup. There were also lavish salads and delicious traditional crispbreads (knäckebröd). Washing it down with Oppigårds Indian Tribute for SEK89(₹670), a rich, bitter India pale ale, it was time for the postprandial climb back to my cell. Sprawled on the narrow cot, I reflected on the prison correspondence compiled in the basement museum, postcards left behind by jailbirds who dreamt of important things such as eating chicken. But being a temporary visitor in jail, I burped softly and really missed nothing.



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; Mail at: zacnet@email.com

Published on May 15, 2020

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