Illustrating the growing trend for dark tourism, Delhi’s Tihar Jail is opening cells for tourists to give them a first-hand taste of life behind bars in an Indian prison. Emily Eastman reports

For about £20, the “Feel Like Jail” initiative will invite tourists to sample life in Asia’s largest prison – living in a locked cell, eating prison food, sleeping on the floor, wearing a uniform and grinding wheat at 5am.

The prison, which sprawls across 400 acres and houses more than 16,000 inmates, has constructed special tourist cells that are separated from the main prison by high walls.

There’s also the possibility of meeting real inmates, although not the notorious criminals currently imprisoned there. Instead, only selected inmates will be allowed to live in the complex with tourists.

Speaking to India Today, a source said: “These prisoners will be shortlisted based on their behaviour while they are lodged in jail. It is important for visitors to share the same premises with these inmates so that they can interact with them, listen to their stories.”

A source within Tihar Jail said that the complex was reviewed in June. “The feedback by superintendent-rank officers emphasised that visitors could be kept with inmates of semi-open and open prisons.

“Also, the proper uniform of the jail must be provided to the visitors and she/he should be kept away from mobile phones and other special facilities,” they said.

Although cells have toilets, tourists will still have to sleep on the floor like a real inmate and phones will be removed for security reasons. Activities during the stay will include dawn exercises and daily activities such as painting and meditation.

There are rumours that the attraction could be a Delhi Tourism initiative, which is not so hard to believe when you consider that the prison already sells a wide-range of “TJ’s” branded goods – from textiles to furniture – made by prisoners.

It’s not the first time that so-called “prison tourism” has been used to attract visitors and generate more tourism receipts.

In the 1990s, English inmate Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, where he was imprisoned after being convicted of drug smuggling.

Mcfadden’s tours were borne of a need for income – San Pedro operated as a mini city, with inmates required to pay for everything, including their cells – but modern prison tours seem to be built on demand from a niche segment of travellers.

Perhaps the first in India was the “Feel the Jail” programme at Sangareddy Prison, in India’s Telangana state. Similar to the Tihar offering, visitors were given a prison uniform, basic cutlery and toiletries while being stripped of their phones – and freedom – for 24 hours.

The prison’s superintendent Santosh Kumar Rai said in 2018: “30 per cent of the prisoners leave out of abrupt sheer fear and for those who do this, we levy an extra charge of Rs 500 [US$7]. But those who complete full 24 hours walk out with a new sense of freedom.”

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