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Tourists who view the evening proceedings at Manhattan Criminal Court are taking in a slice of city life that not even the locals often see.
Getting to know the locals is part of what makes travel interesting. But for some, apartment living and chatting to barmen is not enough.
While most tourists to Manhattan want to see the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway, others are showing an increasing interest in a darker side of New York. An underbelly most easily revealed by an encounter with people that you won’t see in holiday brochures: criminals, or at least those suspected of an offence.
In New York, the gritty tales of those who stand in the city’s docks and behind bars in its prisons, have become a draw for visitors wanting a real-life experience of what they have seen on Judge Judy.
As in British courts, the Manhattan Criminal Court is open to the public, so the personal details of wasted lives are laid bare for onlookers in the gallery to pick over. And in Manhattan, there is the added possibility of seeing wild-eyed pop stars in the docks.
The night court here is one of the country’s busiest and, despite some of the hearings being jargon-heavy, is a recommended attraction in guidebooks including Lonely Planet’s. Established in 1907, the court handles approximately 70 to 90 cases during the 5pm to 1 am night session.
Inspired by television dramas such as Law & Order and Night Court, as well as the thrill of seeing someone sitting close by in handcuffs, the Manhattan sessions have become surprisingly popular. Robert Smith, a clerk at the court, has acted as a tour guide for school groups even, some who travelled from as far away as Denmark.
“Attending night court is a chance to see real-life drama,” said Regis St. Louis, Telegraph Travel writer and the author of Lonely Planet’s guide to New York, “with elements both tragic and mundane.
“It’s also quite eye opening to see the American justice system in action – where there’s often a lot at stake for the defendants. It remains one of those underground attractions of NYC, and sure to provide fodder for vivid travel tales when you get home.”
But do such experiences help tourists get the measure of a place? More broadly, night court visits could be viewed as one of a number of attractions appealing to those wanting to “slum it” on holiday – in the American sense of spending time with those less fortunate than yourself, as opposed to the British one of saving pennies by checking into a Times Square hostel.
Under the Andes, in the world’s highest capital city, prison inmates are making a good business out of receiving visits from tourists. The San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia, is an entry in guidebooks to the region, with the Rough Guide describing it as somewhere that “attracts travellers jaded with more traditional tourist attractions”.
Violet Cloutman recently visited on an informally-arranged prison tour, after she was handed a slip of paper with a mobile number and told to “Ask for José.” A car was sent for her which took her to the prison, where she was shown around by José – a drug dealer serving a lengthy sentence.
San Pedro is not like other prisons, she told Telegraph Travel, it’s a microcosmic society in which the inmates govern themselves through democratic elections, abide by their own laws and mete out their own punishments.
“José showed me to his apartment and, handing me a beer, answered my questions,” she said. “I politely declined his offer of cocaine, and he laughed at my shock when he told me that most of Bolivia’s drugs are made in a makeshift lab right there within the prison walls. How much was true and how much bravado I cannot say, but I was transfixed.”
Other prisons around the world, such as Alcatraz and Robben Island, are tourist attractions in their own right, with fascinating histories.
But “slumming it” tourist experiences are more voyeuristic than that, and include tours of slums in Mumbai, which became popular after the success of the Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire, and favela tours in Rio de Janeiro.
The draw for tourists such as Violet is a glimpse – however fleeting – into a life less ordinary.
“When it was time to leave San Pedro prison,” she said, “I wished José good luck and he promised to send me an email on his release. As of yet, he never has.”