When booking a hotel room, most travelers look for luxury amenities, 800-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, hypoallergetic feather pillows and complimentary continental breakfasts. I’m drawn to the anti-luxe. I’m a junkie for authentic experiences that are strange, shocking and make for interesting dinner party conversations. When I learned about the Karosta Prison Experience in Latvia, I was sold.
A former military prison operating right up until 1997, Karosta offers guests a fully immersive overnight stay in the Alcatraz of the Eastern Bloc. In this reality show behind bars, tourists are interrogated, harassed, pushed around and humiliated, all part of a role-play adventure designed to simulate the authentic prison experience.
Physical and psychological torture might not sound like an amusing tourist activity, but at the Karosta prison, there’s a market of likeminded “experience-junkies” who will pay to be treated like inmates.
I was greeted by two somber-faced guards dressed in army green uniforms. They took my backpack, barked orders at me and roughed me up a bit. The men’s accents were as thick as their moustaches, and, though they were paid actors, their roles as cruel prison guards were thoroughly convincing.
One of the guards led me to block A. He opened the creaking metal door to one cell with a set of antique keys, pushed me in and slammed the door. Standing alone in a pitch-black room that smelled of mold and misery, I reflected on the most unusual welcome. Within just minutes of my arrival, I was fully immersed in the prison experience. There would be no preferential treatment, no turndown service.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the dank room, I saw scratchings from previous prisoners scrawled in the stone walls — a sober reminder that, while my prison experience was fake, the history was very real. Built in the early 1900s as an infirmary, Karosta was used for almost a century as a Nazi and Soviet military prison. Hundreds of prisoners and World War II Latvian deserters were shot dead there — a heavy historic reality never forgotten during my stay.
After hours of being barked at and pushed around, I was starting to crack. I was forced to scrub a dirty latrine with a toothbrush, do military drills bootcamp-style and stand in stress positions while wearing a gas mask. I was verbally abused, interrogated and subjected to gunfire (blanks, but still ear-splitting). Sensing that I was breaking down emotionally in a very real way, the guards led me back to solitary confinement, threw some wooly, scratchy blankets at me and said it was lights out.
I looked incredulously at my "bed" — a mere slab of wood, no mattress, no pillows, no comfort whatsoever. Just three panels of knobby distressed oak, shoddily nailed together by an unskilled craftsman.
My guard smirked and wished me goodnight with an ominous threat: “I will be seeing you soon, prisoner 34589.”
Lights out. I tucked my backpack under my head as a makeshift pillow, laid down on my gurney-like bed and spread the blanket over my body. Sleep would be difficult, if not impossible. Besides the comfort factor (curse that cold wooden slab), there was the lingering threat of intrusion. Finally, I was simply scared. There, alone in the darkness, the wind howled against the small porthole — my only connection to freedom and fresh air. The doors creaked, and I imagined ghosts of prisoners past.
Six hours later, I remained wide awake, staring at the ceiling, body cold, stiff and uncomfortable. Minutes passed like hours. Hours felt like days. I thought the light and freedom of morning would never come. Yes, I had volunteered for this. But I had imagined a Disney-level tourist experience of a "prison," where costumed characters held my hands and served snacks all night. Why didn’t I book a night at the Four Seasons like a normal fucking person?
Finally, a crack of sunshine. Then, the stirring of the prison guards. A rising surge of hope and gratitude filled my heart — my night in the prison was finally over. No longer playing their roles, the "guards" were now eager to pal around, just another band of actors paid to perform for tourists.
Why would anyone do this? This form of hands-on historical roleplay takes tourists beyond the facts and figures, and gives tangible insights into the Soviet occupation of Latvia. I left Karosta thinking of the prisoners who spent more than just one uncomfortable night in this terrible place. And, naturally, I considered present-day detainees around the world who, no doubt, endure equally harsh conditions.
I was lucky enough to pack up and head home after just one miserable night.
For more about Karosta prison hotel experience, visit http://www.karostascietums.lv.