I could think of many different ways to land myself in prison. But then, all those things I had in mind were more likely to get me sentenced for life than just one night in prison. All I wanted was to experience it for one night. So, I had to figure out another way.
While preparing for my Euro trip in October 2018, I did some online research on places to visit in Latvia, and stumbled upon a gem: located about 200 kilometers from Riga, facing the Baltic Sea, is a military port called Karosta that used to serve as a secret naval base for the Russian empire and the Soviet Union.
One of the main highlights of this place is its prison. Built in 1905, it still retains its original architecture but is now a museum by day and a ‘hotel’ by night. It is the only military prison in Europe that is open to tourists.
Online reviewers write of their “full-prisoner experience” in this prison hotel, which involves prisoner garb, physical punishments, verbal abuse, death threats, and warning gunshots. Actors are hired to act as prison guards and execute these punishments. Also, rumor has it that the prison is haunted. All guests have to sign a waiver form to acknowledge that they know what they are getting themselves into.
Well, they seem to have a very dark sense of humor. I could barely contain my excitement. I guess I do have a masochistic streak in me after all.
June, July & August: Daily, 9:00 – 19:00
May & September: Daily, 10:00 – 18:00
October & April: Daily, 11:00 – 17:00
1st November – 31st March: Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays, 12:00 – 16:00
Services & Activities
– Tourism information about Karosta and Liepaja
– Tour guide services for Karosta and Liepaja
– Bicycle rental and cycling tours around Karosta
– Prison tour
– “Buffetchitza” (Soviet-style buffet meal)
– Souvenir shop
– Night’s lodging
– “Escape from the USSR” Spy Game
– Escape room
– “Behind Bars: The Show” (a historical interactive reality show involving audience)
– Airsoft (a military simulation game in Karosta prison and fortress)
How to Book
The overnight stay in Karosta Prison is available by reservation only. However, it is not currently listed on Booking.com or any other online booking platforms. You can only make a reservation for your stay by contacting them directly via email, phone call, or Facebook page. The current rate is EUR15 per person.
How to Get There
Karosta Prison is located at Invalīdu iela 4, Karosta, Liepāja. From Riga International Bus Terminal, take a bus to Liepaja, and from Liepaja, take bus #3 or #4 to Karosta. Tell the bus driver that you’re going to Karosta Prison and he’d know where to drop you. From the bus stop on the main street, it’s only a 15-minute walk to the prison.
The first thing that struck me about the place was how dreary it was. Mist hovered all around me despite the wind. Gray clouds hung low. Cars were few, and there was scarcely anyone around. The ones that I did encounter all walked in a hurry, with hands in their pockets, faces half hidden in their scarves, heads bent down or looking gloomily ahead. I was starting to doubt my decision of coming here. I felt like I had stepped into a post-apocalyptic world.
The check-in time was at 9 p.m., but since I had nowhere else to go, I thought I might as well wait in the lobby or something. Surely prisons have lobbies too?
On both sides of the roads were forests. Occasionally, I would come across a building or two, which I assumed were apartments, but they looked cold and deserted. As I reached the prison at 5 p.m., a stocky old lady was locking the gate from outside. A sign on the gate clearly stated that it was only open till 4 p.m. in October.
I asked the lady if they would be open again that night. She shook her head. I told her I had already made a reservation and proceeded to show her the confirmation email. Shaking her head again, she told me in broken English to call the number on the gate. And then she left me standing there, alone and bewildered.
The day was getting dark. There was a bench by the roadside, but I didn’t want to sit there all alone in the dark, and in front of a haunted prison, no less. So, I walked back towards the main road where there were streetlights. My offline map showed there were a few cafes nearby, but upon finding them, I discovered they were all closed.
I did, however, find a grocery store. It would stay open till 10. That eased my worry a little, because if the prison didn’t re-open by 9, at least I knew I had someone to go to for help. In a worst-case scenario — if I couldn’t get a bus or a taxi back to Liepaja — I was hoping that the storekeeper might take pity on me and invite me to her house. Apart from that, I didn’t have any other backup plan.
The hours moved really slowly, but at long last, it was 8.45 p.m. — time for me to go and check if the prison was open. I was praying that I would see some lights coming from it, but was disappointed to find that it was just as dark as when I had left it several hours ago.
However, when I walked a little closer, my heart filled with relief to see that the gate was unlocked. I pushed it open and peered inside. Sitting on a bench was a teenage boy who promptly stood up to greet me. He introduced himself as William. It seemed a little strange to see a young boy in such a place, but that didn’t matter to me in the least. I was really just glad to see another human being (I checked that his feet were touching the ground), especially one that spoke my language.
William, as it turned out, could speak English very fluently. He told me his mother worked in the prison and he occasionally helped out when he wasn’t busy with school.
The Prison Tour
An hour later, the pair — Alberto and Alessia — arrived. They were a young Italian couple who had been hitchhiking from Estonia. They too, chose the planks (great minds think alike). After they had both prepared their beds, William took us on a tour to the second floor of the prison.
Unlike the first floor, the interior of the second floor had remained unchanged since the soviet era. We could see wall carvings and doodles left by the prisoners of an era long gone.
William showed us the prisoners’ bathroom (only two squat toilets to be shared among the hundreds of prisoners), and the solitary confinement cell.
The prison guard’s room had been transformed into a gallery to display their uniforms, books, guns and other memorabilia from WWII.
The "White Lady"
Karosta Prison’s claim to fame is that during its time, it was a prison that nobody ever escaped from. In present days, it has been dubbed one of the most haunted places in the world.
Before we went to bed, William decided that that was the perfect time to tell us the story about the “White Lady”. In 1944-1945, he said, hundreds of prisoners were executed within the prison walls, mostly over trivial crimes.
One of the victims was a young man who was going to get married real soon. On the day of their supposed wedding, his bride went looking for him, and upon finding out that he had been shot to death, she killed herself in the prison. And her spirit had stayed there ever since. Some people had claimed to see her lurking around the cells.
A Miserable Ending
The next morning, I woke up at 8 so that I could catch a 9 a.m. bus back to Riga. After taking a few pictures with William in front of the prison, I said goodbye to him, paid him the 15 euros and went on my way. It was a beautiful morning. Much lovelier weather than the day before.
As I was walking away, my jacket had somehow gotten tangled with my bag strap and I struggled a little to fix it. Then I slipped my hand into one of its pockets to retrieve my phone so that I could open the map. It wasn’t there. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. And I was pretty sure I had put it in there after taking the photos earlier.