What Happens When Prisons are Abandoned?


There is something particularly fascinating about abandoned prisons. Across the globe, from the infamous Alcatraz Island in the US to lesser-known penitentiaries in remote corners, these abandoned prisons hold within their crumbling walls stories of history, mystery, and sometimes, the supernatural. That’s why, in this article, we are going to unlock the doors of some of the world’s most intriguing abandoned prisons. 

We’ll explore the reasons these facilities were left to decay – be it due to changes in the justice system, financial constraints, or the evolution of societal attitudes towards incarceration. We’ll also delve into the stories of infamous inmates, daring escapes, and what daily life was like behind bars. So, let’s step into the shadows of these forgotten jails and discover the secrets they hold.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, USA

the main corridor of the cellhouse at Alcatraz Prison at Alcatraz Island

Nestled on Alcatraz Island in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay, this prison is as infamous as it is famous. Opened in 1934, Alcatraz was designed to be the ultimate maximum-security prison, the kind of place where you sent prisoners who caused trouble at other federal prisons. It was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the time, like Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud. The island itself, surrounded by strong currents and frigid water, made escape seem next to impossible.

But you know, Alcatraz wasn’t just about the tough guys and the escape attempts (which, by the way, were the stuff of legends!). It also had a really interesting daily life. Despite its reputation, some prisoners actually considered the living conditions better than other federal prisons. They had access to good food, and the one-man-per-cell policy meant a degree of privacy that was hard to come by elsewhere.

However, in 1963, after 29 years of operation, Alcatraz closed down. It was just too expensive to keep running, and the buildings were starting to crumble. Today, it’s a huge tourist attraction, a National Historic Landmark where visitors can take a peek into the past, walking through the same cell blocks and corridors as some of the most infamous figures in criminal history.

Eastern State Penitentiary, USA

inside the old Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, USA, is a place that’s as haunting as it is historically significant. Opened in 1829, this prison was something of an architectural marvel and a radical shift in the way people thought about corrections and reform. It was designed to inspire true penitence (hence ‘penitentiary’) in the hearts of inmates, which is a fancy way of saying it was made to make prisoners feel really, really sorry for their crimes.

The idea was all about solitary confinement; each prisoner had his own cell, with a tiny skylight and virtually no contact with other humans. It was thought that this isolation would lead to spiritual reflection and reform. Can you imagine? Complete solitude, day in and day out. Famous inmates like bank robber Willie Sutton and the notorious gangster Al Capone spent time there, each confined to their own little world of penance.

But as you might guess, this grand experiment in solitary confinement didn’t exactly pan out as planned. It turned out that extended isolation wasn’t reformative; it was more psychologically damaging. By the early 20th century, overcrowding forced the Eastern State to abandon its solitary system, and the prison became more like your ‘typical’ penitentiary. It operated until 1971, after which it was abandoned for many years, falling into eerie disrepair. Nowadays, it’s a museum and historic site where visitors can walk the spooky, crumbling cell blocks and learn about the prison’s history and its impact on the American penal system.

Old Melbourne Gaol, Australia

the Old Melbourne Gaol in Australia

Old Melbourne Gaol in Australia has quite the tale to tell. Built in the mid-19th century, this imposing bluestone structure has seen a fair share of history. It’s smack in the middle of Melbourne, and back in its heyday, it was the scene for some of the most dramatic episodes in Australian criminal history. 

Think of dark, cramped cells and the strict discipline of Victorian-era justice. The gaol was notorious for being the site of 133 hangings, including that of the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly in 1880. His story alone is the stuff of Aussie legend – a sort of Robin Hood figure with a much darker twist. Kelly’s final standoff and subsequent trial and execution are deeply ingrained in Australia’s cultural heritage, and much of that history is tied to the Old Melbourne Gaol.

Now, wandering through the gaol today, you can explore the cells where prisoners lived and sometimes died, and there’s this palpable sense of history in the air. It’s like you can almost hear the whispers of the past as you walk through the corridors.

Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland

inside Kilmainham Gaol in Ireland

Opened in 1796, the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland, has witnessed and played a role in some crucial moments, especially during the struggle for Irish independence. The gaol is infamous for incarcerating many leaders of various Irish uprisings, including the 1916 Easter Rising. Walking through the cold, echoing cells and the stone corridors, you can almost feel the weight of history pressing down on you. The leaders of the Easter Rising were held and executed here, turning Kilmainham Gaol into a site of martyrdom and a catalyst for the Irish independence movement. It’s chilling to think about the despair and hope that these walls have witnessed.

After closing its doors as a prison in 1924, Kilmainham Gaol fell into ruin until it was restored in the 1960s by volunteers. Now, it serves as a museum, offering visitors a deep dive into Ireland’s complex political history. One of the most striking features is the Victorian wing, with its panopticon design – a stark reminder of the harsh realities of 19th-century prison life. The stone-breakers’ yard, where the executions took place, is a particularly moving spot. It’s not just a tour; it’s an experience that stirs something in you. Kilmainham Gaol isn’t just about the bricks and mortar; it’s about the stories of the people who passed through its gates – the rebels, the dreamers, and the ordinary folks caught in the crossfire of history.

Goli Otok, Croatia

the ruins of the Goli Otok prison in Croatia

Goli Otok, often referred to as the ‘Croatian Alcatraz,’ is shrouded in both mystery and a somber slice of history. Situated in the Adriatic Sea, this island served a rather dark purpose during the Yugoslav era – it was a political prison and labor camp. What makes Goli Otok particularly haunting is its history as a place of punishment for those considered enemies of the communist state. From 1949 to 1989, it was infamous for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment of prisoners. The island, whose name literally means “Bare Island,” is as stark as its history. Barren, rocky, and exposed to the harsh Adriatic elements, it provided the perfect isolated setting for a prison that was meant to break spirits and loyalty.

Today, Goli Otok stands abandoned, a ghostly reminder of a bygone oppressive regime. Walking through the ruins, you can’t help but feel the eerie silence that now envelops the place. The dilapidated buildings, crumbling watchtowers, and rusting barbed wire tell a story of suffering and isolation. It’s a stark contrast to the stunning natural beauty of the Croatian coastline. What’s fascinating is how Goli Otok has transitioned from a place of fear and punishment to a point of interest for tourists and history buffs. It’s like a hidden chapter of Cold War history sitting quietly in the blue waters of the Adriatic.


And that brings us to the end of our journey through the haunting and historical world of abandoned prisons, from Alcatraz’s infamous island fortress to the stark isolation of Goli Otok in Croatia. These prisons, now silent and empty, once echoed with the stories of their inmates, each cell and corridor holding tales of hope, despair, and everything in between. These sites remind us of the changing perspectives on incarceration and human rights over time. As we leave behind these crumbling walls and rusting bars, we take with us a deeper appreciation of history’s layers and the enduring spirit of the human will.

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