Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

The allure of prison hotels: how some of the world's most famous jails have transformed into luxury stays

While many offer five-star finishes, some come complete with a gruelling inmate experience

The door slams shut, the lights go out and all is still – until the sound of slow footsteps cuts through the silence outside your cell door. Your heart races as a sharp rap lets you know it’s time.

“Room service!” calls a cheery voice.

And if the plume of dry ice that floats through the heavy doors doesn't spell out just how far this is from an ordinary night in jail, then the silver platter of oysters might.

For almost 150 years, the thought of spending a night in the Netherlands' notorious Het Arresthuis prison would have chilled many to the bone. Now, the 19th-century building is just one of many former prisons around the world where visitors can opt to spend a night in a cell – and pay for the privilege.

A stylish night in the slammer

Since 2011, Hotel Het Arresthuis has been welcoming wealthy guests looking for a few nights of luxury. After starting its life as a prison in 1862, the facility closed its doors in 2007 and has since been transformed into a boutique five-star hotel that offers tourists the chance to spend a stylish night in the slammer.

We’d like to think that our guests are keen to break in rather than bust out. The warm and luxurious feel is the opposite of what you’d expect from a prison

After two years laying empty, Dutch hotel group Van Der Valk spent €8 million ($9.4 million) and two years renovating the dilapidated site. The 105 cells were transformed into 40 luxurious rooms and suites costing more than €230 per night ($270).

The lounge area still retains its original hallways and each room has kept its original door – although the desire to stay has rocketed. “We’d like to think that our guests are keen to break in rather than bust out,” laughs hotel manager Rianne Balkestein.

“Nobody wants to leave. People love to be locked up here and they pay quite a lot of money for it. It’s such a special building. The warm and luxurious feel is the opposite of what you’d expect from a prison.”

In keeping with the hotel's fascinating history, its four opulent suites are appropriately named The Jailer, The Lawyer, The Director and The Judge, and the former inmate courtyard is now a sprawling olive tree-lined terrace.

And though inmates here would have once survived on bread and water, the hotel’s Damianz restaurant boasts caviar and lobster as part of its eight-course fine-dining experience.

The former prison yard is now lined with with olive trees and home to an organic herb garden. Courtesy Hotel Het Arresthius  
The former prison yard is now lined with olive trees and home to an organic herb garden. Courtesy Hotel Het Arresthuis

Speaking of the property's ambition to earn a Michelin star, Balkestein says: “The food here is spectacular and it is in keeping with the high-end character of Arresthuis. The transformation is so remarkable that we’ve even had former inmates come to visit.”

A stay in Sweden's Alcatraz

Holland is not the only country cashing in on people's fascination with incarceration. Langholmen Hotel, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, once boasted an impregnable reputation that rivalled that of San Francisco's infamous Alcatraz prison.

Located on a private island, its surrounding waters created a natural obstacle that crushed many inmates' dreams of escaping. Prisoners were locked up and executed here from 1724 and the jail holds the grisly title of hosting Sweden’s last execution before capital punishment was abolished in 1921.

The prison remained in operation for 250 years until 1975, before it was converted into a hotel. It retains its original metal doors, barred windows and ladders connecting inmate bunks, and even features an on-site museum showing what life was like for prisoners at the time.

“It wasn’t a pleasant place to be back then,” says marketing director Ola Nymen. “These days it’s somewhere rather captivating for people to escape their troubles.”

Today, visitors can enjoy Swedish meatballs and pickled herring inside the prison’s former hospital-turned-restaurant, as well as hopping over to the mainland to enjoy everything that Stockholm has to offer.

Single, double and family cells are all available, while a “romantic” cell featuring chocolate, fruit and a three-course dinner is on offer for guests seeking a more love-filled lockdown. “We’ve tried to strike the balance between history and luxury,” says Nymen. “We want to retain the character but also make sure our guests are comfortable."

Latvia's 'full prisoner' experience

This is in stark contrast to a former military prison in Latvia, where comfort is not high on the list of priorities. Instead, arrivals at Karosta Prison are required to sign a disclaimer before their stay, acknowledging that they will be “punished” with physical exercise and verbal abuse.

Arrivals at Karosta Prison are required to sign a disclaimer before their stay acknowledging that they will be “punished” with physical exercise and verbal abuse. Courtesy Karosta Prison  
Arrivals at Karosta Prison are required to sign a disclaimer before their stay. Courtesy Karosta Prison

Inmates on death row during the Second World War desperately tried to escape the jail in Liepaja, located in Latvia's Sea. But hundreds of brave tourists head to the western coastline every year, hungry for a taste of the “full prisoner experience”, if only for a night.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the building was originally used as an infirmary, before becoming a Nazi and Soviet military jail, in which hundreds of prisoners were killed. Today, guards still patrol the halls to the sound of distant gunfire.

“It’s a unique venture, to say the least,” said hotel project manager Kristers Krafts. “There is so much history here and a lot of the guests can get spooked. I see how it can be a bit nerve-wracking, but for me it’s just work – even though my office is technically behind bars.”

As well as performing drills and eating prison meals, guests have the pleasure of sleeping on a pancake-thin mattress on the cold prison floor before running laps of the former exercise yard.

But in spite of the austere surroundings, Krafts says guests will get nothing but the “best hospitality” during their stay. “If you disobey orders you will be forced to do physical exercise or cleaning,” he explains. “But the service is absolutely first-class.”

Updated: October 21, 2020 11:05 AM

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