Most of us will never see the inside of a prison unless we play professional sports or pursue a career in finance. Our most intimate knowledge of the Big House tends to come from movies and television, which assure us that prison is either hilarious or full of unpleasant amorous encounters (or both).
But for every "Shawshank" that Hollywood makes up for us to enjoy, there's a real-life prison that's even more interesting, such as the following five of our favorite most bizarre prisons in the world.
San Pedro Prison (La Paz, Bolivia) -- We Hope You Enjoy Your Stay
San Pedro prison in Bolivia (pictured above) runs things a little differently than the county jail you get sent to every time you moon the interstate. The prison houses about 1,500 inmates and in no way resembles anything like a prison at all, except that it's full of thieves and buggerists. Inside the walls you'll find restaurants, a market and even a hotel. The inmates go about their business inside, and so do their children who play wherever they feel like since a number of inmates have their kids living with them.
The prison doesn't actually have guards or bars on the windows and, inexplicably, if you want to stay there (and who wouldn't, it being prison and all?) you need to pay rent. Unlike the lazy carjackers of North America who get put up for free, in Bolivia you have to pay for your cell, and that means working, maybe at a grocery stall, maybe as a hairdresser, maybe as a shiv sharpener. The sky's the limit.
If you're really well off, you can get a cell with a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV. If your prison job sucks, then you're apt to have crappier accommodations, sharing a small cell with a couple other dudes.
Disputes are to be sorted out by the prisoners themselves, which is why a few people per month end up dying accidentally, which is to say they slip and fall on the knife of the dude trying to stab them.
Canto Grande Prison (Lima, Peru) -- Prison of Their Own Making
Somewhere in Lima, Peru, is what happens when insanity and apathy shake hands and try to rehabilitate humanity. Canto Grande prison, a maximum security facility, is as tight a drum as any prison. Yet, within the depths of squalor and cellmates who get sold for cigarettes is Cell Block 1A (shout-out!) where things run a bit differently. This was the cell block of the Shining Path, a Latin American guerrilla organization that is apparently peopled with tidy, well-kept criminals.
1A is the women's block and down the road a ways is the men's block, which is also kept clean and orderly. Prisoners don't rely on the facility to provide food as we hear Peruvian prison food is almost as bad as Arby's. Instead food is brought in by friends and relatives and they prepare it themselves. They also do the local housekeeping and manage the cell blocks, as there are no guards.
For reasons that likely fall under the category of "it made sense at the time," prison officials agreed to turn over authority to members of the Shining Path in the blocks they inhabit, letting them sort out their own crap. Though the Shining Path's influence in Peru decreased for a few years, we like to think the inmates held strong and made sure everyone scrubbed around the toilets and kept their beds made neatly. Or else.
Spandau Prison (Berlin, Germany) -- One Man's Prison
Built in 1876 and capable of holding 600 prisoners, Spandau was notable for housing many Nazi war criminals after World War II. In fact, so many notable Nazis were incarcerated at Spandau they tore the building down in 1987 to prevent it from becoming a Nazi shrine to the sorts of people who make Nazi shrines. You don't want those people in your neighborhood. So why choose 1987? It was the year the prison's last inmate, Rudolf Hess, died. Hess had been the only inmate since 1966.
For 21 years, the massive Spandau housed Hess, the warden and his guards and absolutely no one else. Fights on the prison yard and amorous shower encounters were creepier than you could possibly imagine. In 1987 Hess died, a suicide, at the age of 93, the last Nazi war criminal convicted at Nuremberg. He was guarded on a rotation for those 21 years by Allied guards -- Americans, French, Brits and even Soviets because he'd been sentenced to spend his life in prison and they really meant to hold him to it, even if the alliance had became awfully shaky with the USSR during the interim.
As time went on, Hess lost his mind and the not-Communist members of the Allied Forces tried to get him released on humanitarian grounds. However, the Russians really wanted to see the man punished, even if he was too insane to appreciate what was happening, so Hess stayed right where he was until he took himself out by tying an electrical cord around his neck, either as a suicide or the world's creepiest autoerotic asphyxiation.
ADX Florence (Florence, Colo.) -- Where 'Maximum' Isn't Enough
Hey kids, welcome to SuperMax prison. Anytime you hear the term "supermax" and you're not dealing with feminine hygiene products, something bizarre is afoot.
ADX is a prison intended for the worst felons the country has to offer (such as Ted Kaczynski, pictured left). It and prisons like it are the most hardcore penitentiaries we have before we have to resort to calling in Tina Turner and making Thunderdome a reality.
Where ADX differs from the average hellhole is that it is a control-unit prison. For 23 hours a day, inmates get to experience solitary confinement. There's no communal cafeteria where awesome fights break out, there's no laundry room where deals get made, and there's no shower room, so everyone is free to drop the soap as much as their little felonious hearts desire. For that one remaining hour a day, they get to go outside and have some exercise. Alone. It's entirely possible for an inmate at ADX to serve a life sentence without ever having contact with another prisoner.
Prisoners are served meals in their cells. The room is mostly poured concrete which ensures the furniture can't be moved or even humped comfortably. The toilet will shut off if someone tries to plug it and showers work on a timer to cut back on potential flooding and inmates singing Ace of Base while they lather up, which is just inhumane.
ADX Florence is officially as interesting as forever being stuck in an episode of "CSI"; it's the same thing over and over again.
Cebu Prison (Cebu Province, Philippines) -- Jailhouse Rock
Nothing says entertainment quite like murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders dancing to pop music in unison. It's what makes "So You Think You Can Dance" so popular, and it's the only reason we know anything about Cebu prison in the Philippines.
Likely you've seen at least one of the viral videos posted online from Cebu -- their "Thriller" video was ranked fifth in Time magazine's list of Top 10 Viral Videos. Currently there are 39 videos posted by the warden on YouTube, including dances to Soulja Boy, Black Eyed Peas and the Pointer Sisters.
The dancing is the unnatural evolution of the exercise program at the prison. While most facilities are content to let felons run around, play basketball, lift weights or knife each other, the warden at Cebu wanted discipline. And, after being inspired by a scene from "The Shawshank Redemption," he felt music needed to be involved. The warden of a real-life prison takes advice from Morgan Freeman films. Makes sense.
Around 1,500 prisoners can contribute to the performances and, just because, they also tend to perform at charitable or cultural events and get paid for their work. The prison also does live shows, after which spectators can have their pictures taken with some of the inmates -- presumably ones less likely to strangle them where they stand -- and buy souvenir T-shirts.
If all this sounds like a gross and nearly incomprehensible perversion of the justice system, it's because you're thinking about it too hard. Now sit back, enjoy a dance and remember: The screams from the audience probably aren't because they're being murdered. Probably.