Going To Jail In San Telmo

There’s a prison around the corner from our apartment, and it’s open to the public.

Museo Penitenciario, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

By the way, it’s a museum. Did I forget to mention that? It’s a prison museum, or, if you speak Spanish like I wish I did, Museo Penitenciario.

Museums don’t really light a fire under my feet these days. I’ve been to too many and they’re starting to blend together, like churches. But this museum had two outstanding features: 1) it’s free 2) it’s within walking distance.

It could have been a paperclip museum and I still would have visited, as long as it met those two criteria. Actually, I probably would have been more excited about a paperclip museum, because the novelty alone would have attracted me.

But it was a prison museum, which was better than nothing at all.

Jared and I were the only visitors, and were welcomed by a gruff old man sitting behind a sturdy wooden desk. He asked us where we were from and gave us an English map. This map was largely unnecessary, because the museum part of the old jail was contained within a single hallway, which lined one side of a courtyard.

Somehow, we managed to find our way around without referring to the map.

Hallway Museo Penitenciario San Telmo Buenos Aires
I think that person at the end worked there. Or was lost.
Courtyard of Museo Penitenciario, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Could use a little more foliage, don’t you think?

During its final incarnation, the prison was a women’s penitentiary. In a stunning display of sexism, inmates were made to do things such as sew and bake bread. It reminded me of the time I made a pillow by hand in the sixth grade. My grandma saw it and said, “Don’t they teach you how to sew at that school of yours?”

Maybe a little jail time would have given me more clout in the domestic arena.

Sewing machine, museo penitentiario, san telmo, buenos aires
My nemesis.

In the olden (or at least older) days of the prison, when it was a mental asylum & debtor’s prison, things weren’t quite so Suzy homemaker. There was a sign on the wall of all prohibited self-inflicted tattoos, back when testosterone ruled the joint. Banned images included snakes, crosses, and anything pertaining to one’s mother.

In rebellion, the male prisoners did what all prisoners do (at least in the movies), and made contraband items. There were weapons, bombs, miniature books used to pass notes, shoes with secret compartments, and, of course, assorted drug paraphernalia.

Secret shoe, Museo Penitentiario, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
In case you can’t read it, that says ‘Rohypnol’ on the wrapping.
home made bongs, Museo Penitentiario, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Nothing like crafting a homemade bong to pass the time.

Obviously, these transgressions did not go unpunished. One room was decorated with dioramas depicting the various punishments handed out by prison guards, and the consequences were undesirable.

Prison guard, San Telmo, buenos aires
I hope that’s not a marijuana pipe in your pocket, young man.
Whipping, San Telmo, Buenos AIres
The lash, as portrayed by Mrs. Kimmel’s second-grade class.
Torture chair, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Not sure how this one works, but that leather strap tells me that it’s unpleasant.

If you did something really bad, like carve your mother’s name into your arm with a sharpened spoon and pen ink, they put you in a cell with this creepy mannequin.

Creepy mannequin, San Telmo, Buenos AIres
Your new cellmate, sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger.

And, just like in the outside world, people in prisons get sick, too. The difference, I imagine, is in the facilities. For example, if I walked into a gynecologist’s office and saw this, I’d probably leave. Let me rephrase that: I’d definitely leave.

Gyneocologist's office, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
It’s like something out of a Stephen King novel.
Medicine cabinet, San Telmo, Buenos Aires
This isn’t a medicine cabinet. It’s a science lab.

At the very end of the hallway/museum, there was a room filled with old film reels, a telephone, and what looked like car parts. I have no idea how this related to the prison or why these items merited their own room. My guess is that it was the ‘junk drawer’ of the museum.

“Ché, Sergio – Donde debo poner este auto?”

“En el habitación de junk.”


On the way out, we saw this SPOTTED CAT. It was like a dalmatian that had shape-shifted into a cat, especially when it started walking. Unfortunately, it was too fast for me and I only managed to get a shot of it sitting. If you can’t tell, I was more impressed by its fur patterns than anything else I’d seen all day.

The prison was intriguing, but a spotted cat? That’s something special.

Spotted cat, Museo Penitentiario, Buenos Aires, San Telmo
Spots. Like a dalmation. Or a guernsey cow. Not like a cat.

El Museo Penitenciario is in the barrio of San Telmo in Buenos Aires, at 378 Humberto Primo, and is open Thursdays – Sundays between 2:00PM – 6:00PM.

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    1. I feel bad because I kind of gave it a negative slant in the post – it was actually pretty interesting, but there’s no getting around the weird mannequin or the ‘doctor’s office.’ Those things were creepy. And I love ‘che,’ too! One of the few things that stuck in my mind after a month of Spanish class.

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