Belize Central Prison

Only in a country as laid-back as Belize could a fully functioning prison (Mile 2 Burrell Boom Rd, Hattieville) also be considered a tourist attraction. It's the only prison in Belize (the name 'Hattieville' is to Belizeans what 'San Quentin' is to Americans) and, as such, houses criminals of all stripes, from pickpockets to murderers. But don't come looking for some sort of American-style corporate-owned Supermax with imposing concrete walls topped with electrified razor ribbon and manned guard towers every 20 yards. The 'Hattieville Ramada' (as it's called on the streets) looks more like a summer camp, its main prison buildings set back from the road and surrounded by farmland (where the prisoners work). This is surrounded by a fence about as daunting as what you'd find surrounding a suburban junkyard. According to a few Belizeans we've spoken to, Hattieville residents have been known to break out at night to go drinking with nearby friends only to return in the morning before head-count. So what makes the prison worth a visit?

Two words: gift shop.

Belize Central Prison has an amazing gift shop (§ 225-6991; S 9am-3pm), filled with items from the reformatory's renowned woodshop. Inside the small shop (located on the road and outside of the actual prison itself) you'll find hand-carved walking sticks, traditional masks, religious icons such as crucifixes, statues depicting saints and a host of carved Jesus figures, and even beautifully crafted wooden doors. All items in the shop are meticulously crafted by the prisoners themselves from locally grown woods including mahogany, teak and sandalwood. There's also a fine variety of smaller items, includingjewelry, cards, calendars, hammocks, clothing and other assorted knick knacks, all of which have been made by the prisoners themselves.

This most unusual penal facility is part of the larger vision of an organization called the Koibe Foundation (§ 225-6190, www.kolbe.bz), which took over the management of the once-noto-rious government prison and restructured it in a way that would be more in line with the foundation's Christian philosophy. Rather than merely punishing criminals by sequestering them from society, the Kolbe approach focuses more on rehabilitation through education and development of skills. In addition to the various craft-making shops inside the prison, there are also a number of small-scale animal farms and gardening operations, from which the prison gets some of its food. One of the long-term goals of the foundation is for the prison to be self-sustainable; as such, all funds earned by gift-shop sales go back to the maintenance of the prison, meaning that your purchases directly assist in the rehabilitation of Belize's criminal element (who might otherwise wind up robbing you on your next visit to Belize).

While the gift shop is open to the public, the prison itself isn't. Plans are in the works to expand operations to include a snack stand.

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