Travel: Jails give an insight into parts of society more usually hidden

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BRIXTON PRISON for pounds 50 a night? Ridiculous. In Inverness you get to stay for free.

This week's controversy about plans by the governor of the south London jail to take paying guests highlights the fact that, for better or worse, prisons comprise a significant part of the traveller's experience. You could, like a former editor of The Independent, find your stay in Thailand encumbered by spells at His Majesty's pleasure. I have been enjoined to spend time in the cells by constabularies as various as those in Transylvania, Cuba and Stevenage.

But the traveller who manages not to offend local sensibilities on matters such as photography and hitch-hiking can derive considerable advantage from a brief and voluntary stay in prison.

The dank old jail close to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul has been beautifully rehabilitated as a Four Seasons hotel, while the youth hostel in the Canadian capital Ottawa is an unconverted prison, complete with staff who struck me more as warders than wardens.

As tourist attractions, too, prisons give an insight into the parts of society that are more usually hidden; the chilling but intriguing Armagh jail, which opened to the public earlier this year, is an excellent example.

Should you wish to treat prisons as more than mere tourist attractions, then you can visit British people held in foreign jails; contact Prisoners Abroad (0171-833 3467) to find out who may be in need of human contact and kindness.

And Inverness? Apparently this summer has not been entirely bad for Scottish tourism. Three weeks ago, a couple of Spanish tourists were unable to find anywhere to stay in the highland capital, and were duly put up at the local nick.

RYAN VER BERKMOES is a name to remember - not least for the anagrammatical possibilities. Mr Ver Berkmoes also happens to be an engaging writer. At a conference earlier this year, he told me about his work on the new Lonely Planet guide to Chicago. He and I agree wholeheartedly that, as he writes in the introduction to his book, "Chicago should be the first stop on any visitor's itinerary to the US".

Where we part company is over his extraordinary repertoire of acknowledgements, which occupy 70 lines that could arguably be better spent on recommending a few extra cafes or little-known museums.

The thanks begin with "My wife, Sara Marley, an incomparable reader who gave support, love, advice" and end with the band 10,000 Maniacs, "whose album Our Time in Eden became the ritualistic start of each day's writing session". In between, a host of helpers whose numbers approach that of the entire population of Chicago receive plaudits.