Barking dogs by the doors, damp plaster peeling from the walls, and a mouldy mattress for a bed. Oh yes, and bars on the door. Welcome to the world’s worst hotel: Alcatraz!
As JJ Abrams’ new TV series comes to Watch (tonight, at 9pm) Steve Berry checks in for the night...
“In Alcatraz,” bellows the guard in my face, “You will refer to the guards as ‘Sir’! Do you UNDERSTAND?!”
I’d planned for this to be a bit of a laugh. I was going to play the hard man, cause a bit of trouble, maybe smack someone around the head with a billiard ball in a sock and teach an old man in solitary confinement how to read. But my first experience of US Prison Alcatraz is the hairdryer treatment from a beefy dude in a smart, two-button gun metal grey suit and rib-bruisingly heavy-looking boots. My heart leaps into my throat, and all thoughts of escape vanish. As the camera flashes to take my mug shot, I’m beginning to regret agreeing to take the role of jailbird for the next 12 hours.
This Alcatraz isn’t located on an island in the middle of San Francisco bay, but in a small, specially converted building just off London’s Pentonville Road – a somewhat appropriate address given the circumstances. It has opened as a “pop-up” hotel especially to promote the arrival on UK shores of J.J.Abrams’ Alcatraz, starring Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia. Just opposite is a dance studio called The Joint and, believe me, the solitary cell waiting for me is more like something from the nightmare Saw movies than the cosy sitcom world of Porridge.
The grey, mouldy mattress is only marginally less disgusting than the stained toilet just a few inches away from my head. I can stretch out and touch both walls at the same time – and I might well do so if it weren’t for the decaying lumps of plaster that come away in my hands. Something brown and nasty drips from the sink. I’m being banged up with scum in more ways than one.
This is not the place for claustrophobics. Before the door clangs shut with a jingle of keys, I am ordered to change into prison regulation t-shirt and sweat pants and relieved of all my worldly possessions. I look like an Essex teenager hanging out at a bus stop. All is silent but for the occasional ear-shattering blast on a guard’s whistle, the gruff snarl of the chained Doberman outside, and the background hammering of an authentically 1950s Remington typewriter. I am forbidden to communicate with my fellow inmates, known only as prisoner numbers 1 and 2, who are similarly detained at Uncle Sam’s pleasure further down the row. For company I have the prison rule book (“DISCIPLINARY ACTION may result in loss of some or all of your privileges and/or confinement in the Treatment Unit”), an incongruous bottle of Evian water, and a dinner menu.
Intimidating the atmosphere may be but, in fairness to these guys, the food I can choose to order from “room service” isn’t half bad. Far from the expected choices of slop, gruel or hard tack, the jail’s own Jamie Oliver can rustle up a Portobello Mushroom burger or Rocket & Parmesan salad to order. The goons, it turns out, are gourmets!
But all meals have to be earned and, after an interminable wait – time doesn’t exactly fly by in chokey and I soon regret not bringing a baseball and glove to while away the hours – I am set my first task: knitting a scarf out of chunky wool. It’s not something I particularly excel at and I am soon reprimanded for my lack of effort. Thankfully, it doesn’t impact on my good conduct record and dinner is served, along with an “Alcatraz serviette” (or bog roll to you and me). Sadly, my flippant request for something “with fava beans and a nice Chianti” is met with a steely stare.
Everything in the hotel (and, yes, I do have to keep reminding myself I’m staying here voluntarily) has been has been meticulously designed to replicate life in the world’s most notorious detention centre and the metal food trays are no exception. In fact, it’s only when I request a toilet break and am frogmarched through to the facilities at the rear of the hotel that I am reminded that we are inside an elaborately constructed film set. It’s like Westworld, only with human actors playing the parts of the robots, and slightly fewer Roman orgies or indiscriminate slaughtering.
Two hours in (or is it more?) and I’m already missing seeing the sky, smoking a fag, or following a particularly gossipy hashtag on Twitter. My second task is to construct something out of LEGO: I make a key, although it doesn’t fit the lock on my cell door, but the warden seems pleased.
As a reward, I am allowed to watch episode one of Alcatraz (something of a busman’s holiday when it comes to a treat, I feel) on a large plasma TV which is wheeled in and positioned beyond the bars. The free popcorn is a nice touch, too.
All too soon, it’s “lights out” time and I must climb between two blankets made seemingly from recycled roof felt. The fitted sheet underneath isn’t even a high-thread Egyptian percale – so that’s one star I’ll be docking them on Trip Advisor, I can tell you. As I watch a guard play solitaire with a pack of cards under an anglepoise lamp, I slowly drop off into an uneasy sleep. How quickly I must have become institutionalised, that this doesn’t feel in any way strange. Although, that said, it’s not anything like as bad as my 2nd year halls of residence at uni. At least here no one’s going to pinch the last sausage from my bit of the fridge.
Morning brings with it the news that prisoner number 2, like the three hundred or so convicts of Abrams’ Alcatraz mystery, has disappeared during the night. (It turns out to be nothing sinister. He just couldn’t stand the snoring from the adjacent cell so issued the hotel’s “safe word” and fled to the comfort of his own bed.) For the remaining two detainees, an offer of breakfast – “Would you like a cappuccino?” – and the final task of sweeping the floors before we are officially released. Prisoner number 3 signs the guest book and heads out to freedom. He is long gone before I realise that we haven’t even asked each other’s names.
With my discharge papers signed and stamped, the four guards finally drop their “character masks” (and with it, their Californian accents) and chat to me about the experience. One of them, I learn, is an actor who once appeared in the Doctor Who story, Meglos – a fact which, coupled with my failure to notice earlier, severely shames my Starburst journo credentials. Though maybe identifying him would’ve broken the fourth wall. (Certainly, no other walls were in danger of being broken in this place. Even I drew the line at an Andy Dufresne-style getaway through the sewers of Kings Cross.)
Should you wish to spend a night being treated like one of the USA’s most notorious criminals, the hotel is available to book via LateRooms.com until March 17. It comes heartily recommended to masochists, people with a fondness for keeping birds, and anyone who fancies themselves as a latter-day Sean Connery. Just one thing: if you stay in cell number 3, do check under the bed for the contraband I smuggled in there.
Alcatraz 0: Starburst 1
Alcatraz premieres on UK TV tonight at 9pm on Watch (Sky 109/Virgin Media 124).