March 15, 2012 / 4:23 PM / 7 years ago

A maximum-security stay in London's pop-up Alcatraz

LONDON (Reuters) - As the hours approach towards incarceration, the nerves begin to fray. The few belongings packed in preparation for a stint in the big house seem paltry: a towel, a book, and even a roll of toilet paper.

Reuters reporter Ethan Bilby sits in his cell in Hotel Alcatraz, a four cell temporary hotel, modelled on San Francisco's famous prison, in Kings Cross in London, March 14, 2012. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

But you can’t prepare to think like a prisoner.

“Inmates” at London’s Hotel Alcatraz, lose everything they’ve brought with them when they walk in the door, even the clothes off their backs, as they enter a mock-up of the notorious U.S. island prison made famous by inmates such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

The hotel may be a publicity stunt for the British premiere of “Lost”-creator J.J. Abrams’ latest science fiction television series, “Alcatraz,” but guests were quickly disabused of the notion that this is anything other than a night in the slammer.

Mugshots were taken. Uniforms issued. Belongings surveyed. Pockets were checked for contraband.

A guard sitting at a manual typewriter stared up on a Wednesday night and asked for a name.

“Here in Alcatraz, you will address the guards as sir!” he growled.

The Alcatraz experience followed the role of the “escape-proof” original — the prison system’s prison — where those who didn’t obey the rules were sent to break their will on an island in San Francisco Bay, California.

“We don’t know what your crimes are, and we don’t care,” another guard said. “You’re here because you couldn’t follow the rules. Well at Alcatraz, that ends here.”

“Prisoner number three coming through,” he said, blowing a loud whistle, the first of many such whistle-blows throughout one evening in the attraction.

Sitting in a five by nine foot (1.5m by 2.7m) cell, with nothing but a prisoner’s rule book, a menu, and a dirt-caked sink and toilet, prisoners were left only with their thoughts.

To the every guest’s relief, the grimy privy in the cell was only for show, and visitors made use of private facilities.

But while the concrete walls of the cell might actually have been plaster cast, sat in a dank room with bilious blankets smelling like something recovered from a flood, the feeling that prisoners had lost control over their lives seemed real.

Each convict became cognizant that everything is a privilege. With no control over time, the only thing to pin your hopes on was the dinner menu in the cell.


The menu may have been the most hotel-like aspect of the experience. It’s doubtful most U.S. prisons have ever heard of aioli or Peri Peri chicken.

In keeping with the real Alcatraz, where the food was of high quality to reduce the likelihood of riots, the meals were quite good.

Options such as barbecue riblets in a smoky sauce, grilled chicken, and a portobello market burger, were on the menu, and prisoners were offered a choice of beverages, including red or white wine.

Though the food was tasty, everything over the night was regulated down to the minute. Three minutes to change out of clothes, one minute to order dinner, 20 minutes to wolf it down.

Silence was maintained around the clock with the exception of the strident whistles, roll calls, and orders by the guards.

To “earn” their stay, convicts were tasked with “tailoring,” knitting a scarf out of yarn from convoluted instructions, and model-making, using Lego blocks, and told if they excelled in their tasks they may earn a chance to win back a personal item.

The night was a mix of stringent routine and interaction with the character actors playing the wise-cracking guards.

One inmate’s attempt at a scarf was judged poorly, but a Lego-model of a duck was deemed more creative and earned a spot on the warden’s desk alongside a fellow inmate’s model camera.

The guard picked it up, surveying the brick camera and mimed taking a photo.

“No smiling at Alcatraz!” he barked.


The food finally arrived. One prisoner’s coleslaw was missing. Grateful just to finally eat, he said nothing and 10 minutes later it was pushed through the cell bars.

When prisoners finally had a chance to speak to one another during 15 minutes of “recreation”, it quickly became apparent that many omissions and “slip ups” seemed to be part of a deliberate game to toy with guests.

“Prisoner Number 4,” 37-year-old Australian photographer Nathan Pask, said he did the experience on a lark.

“Maybe I wanted to get back to my convict roots,” he said.

Despite his joking, he later admitted that the experience was effective and altered his behavior.

“I waited for 10 minutes before I finally worked up the courage to ask the guard to use the toilet, which seems crazy.”

As a treat for good behavior guests did in the end earn brief rewards. A chance to use a personal item (for 30 minutes only) and to watch an episode of the new “Alcatraz” series, which premiered in the UK on the Watch channel on Tuesday night.

But on the whole the experience forced guests to be meek and respectful. The morning din of whistles was a relief, and a fellow guest said afterward he had briefly contemplated escape through the bathroom window. (Although guests were free to leave at any time.)

“People may come in here with plans, but they end up just getting immediately taken in and accepting the energy of the place,” one of the character actors playing a guard said afterwards.

Prisoners were released early the next morning after a night’s stay and warned to never re-offend. While shockingly not the worst hotel, Alcatraz was certainly thought-provoking.

The longest term at Alcatraz was over 8,000 nights and several famous criminals such as Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud did long stints on “the rock”.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Guests said while they were happy they made the choice to sample Alcatraz-on-Thames and enjoyed the night, they probably wouldn’t be repeat customers.

Alcatraz is quite possibly the only hotel where at the end of your stay, the staff shout at you, “Don’t come back!”

Hotel Alcatraz is open in London’s King’s Cross from March 13th to March 17th and is bookable on

Reporting By Ethan Bilby, editing by Paul Casciato

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