What Is Prison Island Zanzibar? This Article Details Everything You Need To Know About This Fascinating Island
The Zanzibar Archipelago, including the main island of Unguja, is made up of more than 50 smaller islands and islets, many of them offering a unique opportunity for a day trip.
Several of those islands are easily accessible on a 30-minute boat ride from Stone Town, among them, Prison Island, a tiny islet with an interesting history. This article gives our insight on our trip to visit there.
Highlights of Prison Island Zanzibar
History of Prison Island Zanzibar
Prison Island is located 5.6 km (3.5 mi) from the beaches of Stone Town off the main island of Zanzibar. And while this tiny oblong island is just 800 meters long and 230 meters wide, there are several reasons why you would want to spend some time here.
This unique island is officially called Changuu Island which, in Swahili, refers to the red snapper fish that were once abundant in the waters surrounding the island. The island was pretty much uninhabited until the 1860s when it was gifted to 2 Arab slave traders who used it as a holding area for slaves before bringing them to the market in Stone Town to be sold off.
Fortunately, the slave trade came to an end in Zanzibar in 1873 when the British and Arabs signed a treaty abolishing slavery.
Why Is It Called Prison Island?
The island became known as Prison Island after it was purchased by the British first minister of Zanzibar in 1893 who constructed a prison here to replace the deteriorating one in Stone Town which was in poor condition.
Interestingly, no prisoners were ever kept here. Instead, in 1923 the prison was converted to a sanatorium and was used as a quarantine facility during the yellow fever epidemic. Travellers to Zanzibar would spend up to 2 weeks here before being allowed on the main island to ensure that they were free from yellow fever, cholera and bubonic plague.
✅ Looking for other things to do in Zanzibar? Read our full blog on the top 11 reasons to visit Zanzibar.
Is The Prison Still On The Island?
The main structure of the prison is still intact and has seen some modest restoration. Parts of the facility have been repurposed and it now houses a bar, restaurant and some tourist shops.
The main prison building forms a large square with an open courtyard in the middle. The main gate at the front of the prison still has remnants of the original wooden studded doors. When you pass through the gate you enter the courtyard and an outdoor restaurant sits in the centre.
There are a couple of rooms and halls, some of which you can enter. On the opposite side of the main entrance, there is an open doorway that leads out of the prison to a small landing area with a view of the sea.
While it was somewhat overcast and raining on the day we were there, this is a great spot to get a picture of the turquoise waters from the cliffs of the island.
On one wing of the prison, there is a doorway with a sign above that simply says “The Prison Bar”. Inside the doorway is a small room that used to be a cell which has been converted into a unique little bar.
A large iron ring is secured to the floor at one end which presumably would have been used to shackle prisoners.
Up until recently, there was also a resort on the island, but that has since been closed. A new resort is planned but has not been constructed yet.
✦ Check out our YouTube video on Prison Island by clicking here.
What Is The Main Attraction on Prison Island?
Today, the main attraction to Prison Island is the Giant Aldabra Tortoise Sanctuary that borders the old prison. These tortoises are not native to Zanzibar and are actually endemic to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. In 1919 the ruler of the Seychelles gifted 4 Aldabra Tortoises to Zanzibar.
These tortoises initially thrived and grew to a population of nearly 200 by the mid 1950s. But due to excessive poaching by people selling them as pets or using them for food, the population dropped to only 7 by the late 1990s.
A significant effort was made to protect the tortoises and 80 hatchlings were reintroduced to the island. Since then the population has grown to more than a hundred with the oldest having reached the age of 199!
The tortoises wander freely within a fenced area next to the prison. There are pathways throughout the sanctuary on which visitors must remain. Tortoises have the right of way and often will just settle in the middle of one of the pathways.
At one time visitors were allowed to touch and feed the tortoises, but for the safety and protection of the tortoises that practice is no longer permitted.
There is a small fenced shed that houses several younger tortoises of various ages. There is no access from the outside to the shed in order to protect the youngsters. They are kept here for 10 to 12 years until they are large enough to fend for themselves at which time they will be released in the sanctuary with the other tortoises.
The sanctuary also houses a number of other species including peacocks and duikers, the tiny elusive antelope of Africa, that keep the tortoises company.
Is There A Beach On Prison Island?
There is a small beach on Prison Island, and, depending on the weather and the tide, it can be a spot to swim or snorkel. It is important to note though, that the beach area is limited to the eastern tip of the island which can get quite busy with boat tours using that area as a landing zone to drop off visitors.
There are better islands nearby if you are looking for a beach day, including Nakapenda Island which is only about 30 minutes away by boat.
Prison Island Zanzibar Hotel – Can You Stay?
For quite a few years there was a lodge on the island which had 27 rooms, a restaurant and a pool. The lodge has since closed and fallen into disrepair. The part of the island where the lodge was located was barred off when we were there.
Our guide indicated that there were plans to build a new lodge but construction hadn’t started when we were there. In any event, there is no other accommodation on the island so overnight stays are not currently possible.
How Do I Get To Prison Island?
By far, the best (and only) way to get to Prison Island is by taking a Prison Island Zanzibar Tour. The boat tours start at the main beach in Stone Town where you embark on a small, engine-powered wooden dhow.
The dhows are open on the sides but covered on the top so you are protected from the hot sun. The trip takes between 20 and 30 minutes and the drop-off point is at the southeast tip of the island which is marked by the iconic wooden pier that juts into the ocean, and the white sandy beach that surrounds the pier.
The boat drops you off at the bottom of the pier and you walk up a set of steps to the entrance point of the park. Your tour will include the entrance fee to the park which allows you to see the prison and the tortoise sanctuary. Having a guide will provide you with some history and background of the island.
✅ Here is a tour that we recommend taking that gives you time at Nakupenda Beach as well.
Is It Worth Going To Prison Island?
Prison Island is worth a visit, especially if you want to get a chance to see and support the preservation of the Giant Aldabra Tortoises.
The Prison itself is also interesting, but it won’t take you a lot of time to walk around the structure. It is a good spot to grab a snack and sit out in the sun with a beverage from the Prison Bar.
If you take your time, you can probably see all there is to see on the island in about 2 hours.
Final Word On Prison Island Zanzibar
If you are in Zanzibar and are looking to see an unusual and endangered species of wildlife, then go to Prison Island. Other than their native Seychelles, they are not found in the wild anywhere else in the world.
Oh, and while your there, visit the prison that was never used as a prison, but gave its name to the island!