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Book ‘em, Danno

Yes, even prisons have been converted to hotels, with a strong upside too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007
David Wilkening
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Book ‘em, Danno

There was a time when patrons were waiting for parole or dreaming of an escape. Though there were beds and three squares daily, these guests couldn’t check out on their own since they were in jail. Now, however, people are eagerly checking in to these former prisons now that they’ve become hotels.

It’s a burgeoning trend and there are a variety of prisons now offering voluntary check out for those who want to see what it’s like -- ranging from bare bones backpacker types to more luxurious resorts with gyms and prix fix restaurant menus.

Prisons can even serve as romantic honeymoons. “Hotels built out of jails or prisons have become increasingly popular,” writes Alison Gregor in The New York Times, adding: “And numerous budget accommodations and youth hostels have been built in converted jails and prisons worldwide.”

Liberty Hotel, Boston MA

The most recent example of the type of place visitors shunned in the past but now might want to linger a while is the appropriately named Liberty Hotel in Boston. It’s now taking reservations for an Aug. 19 opening. Rates at the 300-room hotel range from $275 to $550, says general manager Stuart Meyerson.

The motto here is “This time, we take no prisoners.”

Perhaps in part because of the dramatic nature of the $120 million transformation from the Charles Street Jail to a four-star hotel, the move has gotten a lot of interest from users and the media itself.

“Booking interest has been strong. We’ve also gotten a lot of media attention. Both The New York Times and National Public Radio have done stories on us,” says Meyerson, who had 30 years experience at Hyatt before coming here.

The granite jail was originally built in 1851. “It was operated as a jail for 140 years before closing in the 1990s, so it has real architectural and historical significance,” he says.

Instead of prison cots, guests at the hotel will enjoy imported bed linens. Rooms will also boast flat panel TV’s. There’s full concierge service, valet parking and overnight shoeshine service.

Guests will be able to have cocktails in the lobby “jail” bar or feast on world-class cuisine at a fine dining restaurant.

“Captivating in every sense of the world, The Liberty Hotel promises an unforgettable guest experience in a unique setting second to none,” says Richard Friedman, the developer who is CEO of the Cambridge-based Carpenter & Company.

Reminders of the jail remain such as bars in some windows and doors, and vestiges of jail cells within the lobby bar.

Liberty Hotel, Boston MA

The Liberty has a prime location on Charles Street at the foot of historic Beacon Hill. Hotel residents will have rare wrap-around views of the bustling Charles River and the city’s distinctive skyline.

Malmaison Oxford Castle in the UK may be the most unusual and chicest of all clinks than anywhere else. It was the first United Kingdom prison to be converted to a hotel.

Guests can stay in A Wing, C Wing or the Governor’s House. There’s a House of Correction gym and afternoon tea in the former visitors room.

“There’s a bit of a wow factor here. Our quirkiness does attract guests, but we get a lot of business clients as well,” says Claire Pollock, deputy manager.

The facility has a lot of history. It was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1071. The prison itself closed in 1996.

From the outside, it looks like the prison it once was, but inside there’s luxury. Standard rooms are three-cells deep, or spaces that once housed a dozen prisoners.

“There is just enough prison character in the authentic lead doors, pokey barred windows and exposed brick walls to excite the average thrill-seeker, but in no way will you feel you are being left to rot at Malmaison,” says write Sarah Walker of her experience at the hotel where rooms start at about $600.

The rooms have plasma-screen TVS, DCD players, and fully stocked mini-bars. Waffle robes are available after guests bathe in roll-top baths where the slate floors are heated. And romance, but not the type you expect in prisons.

One TripAdvisor traveler wrote:

“My husband and I decided to ‘honeymoon’ at the Malmaison Castle, feeling that this magnificent converted prison would make a grand setting to begin our ‘life sentence’ together. It certainly did not disappoint.”

Showing how popular Malmaison has become: “I’m pleased to say we’re running at similar occupancies to when it was a prison,” says Robert B. Cook, president of the hotel.

Another upscale former jail is The Four Seasons Istanbul. General manager Marcos Bekhit says room rates range from $390 to $3,500 a night.

When the former Sultanahmet Prison in Turkey began new life as a Four Seasons in 1996, hotel officials tried to play down the history until owners found that was a large reason for guests choosing to come here.

“Now, we talk very much about the most beautiful prison in the world,” says Bekhit.

A more affordable former jail is the Breakwater Lodge in the trendy Waterfront Development of Cape Town, South Africa. The lodge in 1901 started housing prisoners and at one time held 351 of them. Today, it offers a variety of rooms, some of which may remind visitors of its earlier existence because of the shared showers. All rooms have TV’s and direct dial telephones.

Another bare bones place is The Old Jail in Mount Gambier, South Australia, which “is as close to sleeping in a prison as you’d probably want to get,” according to some descriptions. “The only change is to alter the cell door locks so you can actually let yourself out,” says one guest.

The prison, dating back to 1866, has shared showers and is obviously aimed at budget travelers. A single dorm room can be had for under $20, while a double cell with its own toilet is about $40.

“All tariffs include breakfast provisions from the guest kitchen, sheets, blankets, and pillow cases,” says the Web site. It might make guests rest easier to know the facility’s dining room sells liquor.

Another taste of the Big House at a small price is Jailhouse Accommodations in Addington, Christchurch, New Zealand. The converted prison has 30 private rooms. “You will not find a cleaner place to stay in beautiful Christchurch, and at a budget price,” boasts the Web site. Dorm rooms can be had for under $20.

The Jail Hotel Loewengraben in Lucerne, Switzerland is a trendy boutique hostel that was a prison until 1998. After renovations, prison memorabilia remained and now line the corridor walls. Each room has its original heavy wooden cell door with slots for food.

“The rooms are surprisingly bright and spacious, some even have toilet and shower,” according to a review in Hostelz.com. There are small beds and bars on the windows. Prices start at $75.

The place is reported to be clean, and there are two restaurants and the Alcatraz Bar attached to the hostel. There are regular parties on summer Saturday nights.

If there’s anyone out there who wants real authenticity and a genuine taste of the Big House, there’s a place where handcuffs are included in the room rate.

“There’s no mini-bar, dinner is a piece of stale bread and guests who complain about the service will be shot,” says writer Tim Bryan who sampled KGB-style hospitality at the Latvian Prison Hotel.

The hotel bills itself as “unfriendly, unheated, uncomfortable and open all year round.” But that’s the point: a chance to experience a place which in the early part of the century housed the Czar’s mutinous sailors.

Guests learn first-hand what it was like to be a criminal way back then. They are photographed, a guard files a pistol shot to show the seriousness of the place and guards outline what prisoners can and can’t do. Basically, guests have to do what the guards tell them to do.

Cells are dark, damp and cold. Only cold water is available.
Toilets are holes in the ground.
So who would want to go here?

Prison officials say the facility has been popular with stag groups and college students. More than 21,000 guests checked in last year.

The experience is what the hotel calls its “extreme package,” but it’s less expensive and a lot more comfortable to do what most visitors do: that is, tour the prison and leave on their own accord. Sprung.
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