“Those who come to stay here can get a real feeling for what a prison is like,” Dr. Michael Koll says. “It's like being in jail, but you get to go out and leave,” he adds with a smile.
I am staying at the aptly-named Alcatraz Hotel in Kaiserslautern, Germany, until I fly back to Portugal, my place of residence, next week.
The hotel is owned by Dr. Michael Koll, an attorney by profession who bought the abandoned prison from the state in 2005.
The Alcatraz Hotel opened its doors exactly ten years ago, in September 2008. It was the first hotel of its kind in Germany, i.e. a penal institution converted into a hotel. Sleeping in ex-prisons is very much in vogue now, and there are quite a few hotels of the same kind world-wide, not only in Europe, but also in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.
The prison was founded in 1877 by the Royal Bavarian Government, and was closed by the county in the fall of 2002. It used to hold up to 150 inmates.
Guests can choose a newly-renovated rooms or a basic “cell room.” The cell rooms all have toilets and sinks just like a jail, and there are separate men's and women's shower facilities located at the end of each floor. The steel doors with food hatches are all original. Laid out in the rooms are black and white striped towels, with black and white curtains on small grid windows.
The door to a hotel room. Photo: Anita Lekic
Guests will be provided with a new set of striped black and white prison pyjamas on request, and can choose to have the traditional prison fare, pumpernickel bread and jam, for breakfast. The hotel does have a lavish breakfast buffet for its guests. The price of a cell room is €49 per person and €69 for two people.
The conference rooms are named after places associated with the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the San Francisco coast, built to hold the most notorious criminal figures in the United States, including Al Capone. They are the “Los Angeles,” “San Francisco,” and “Palm Springs” conference rooms. And the hotel gets its name from the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Parked outside in the parking area is an old Citroen, a decorative allusion to Al Capone’s 1928 Cadillac bullet-proofed town sedan.
Dr. Koll took me to see the top, fourth floor, which has not been renovated, to show me the original cells. There is a beautiful chapel there with a confessional and it is completely intact.
I also visited the exercise yard outside, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, where the prisoners got their daily exercise. The size of the whole lot is 4,000 square meters.
Since I’m a history buff, I enjoyed discovering the fact that two members of the Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction – Klaus Jünschke and Manfred Grashof – were held here. In December 1971, a group of four, including Jünschke and Grashof robbed a bank in Kaiserslautern, shooting and killing German police officer Herbert Schoner. Two were apprehended and brought to Kaiserslautern prison.
An un-refurbished part of the prison. Photo: Anita Lekic
Nowadays, the Alcatraz staff consists of 16 people, many of whom are students at the nearby University of Kaiserslautern and work part-time at the hotel. Among them is Dr. Koll’s daughter, Isabelle, 25, who is working towards a degree in social sciences.
Yannik Schilling, 27, is another student and part-time employee. We chat in the evening when the hotel is not busy. Yannik is majoring in health studies: three years for a Bachelor’s degree and eighteen months for a Master's degree.
Peter, a very friendly elderly receptionist, tells me that the Alcatraz Hotel once had a female guest staying from the United States. Her grandfather had been interned in this prison, and she wanted to see and stay in the place where he had been held.
Apart from its history, I found this hotel to be extremely comfortable and its staff the most amiable among the many hotels I’ve stayed at throughout the world. The Alcatraz, despite its history, has a very cosy feeling about it, largely due to the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff. It felt like a second home. I have no doubt that I will be back again.