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Azkaban explained - inside Harry Potter’s terrifying wizard prison

Death Eaters galore and Dementors on guard? You couldn't pay us to go inside the Harry Potter prison, but let's learn more about Azkaban.

Bellatrix Lestrange was one of the toughest prisoners at Azkaban in Harry Potter

Prisons don’t come much more intimidating than the wizarding stronghold of Azkaban. The bleak fortress surrounded by raging seas and staffed by the most loathsome magical creatures is as big a deterrent as you could possibly find against breaking the laws of the Wizarding World.

The Harry Potter movies only give us a few glances at Azkaban, usually as a way of introducing the most evil Harry Potter villains, but that’s enough for us to know we’d never want to go anywhere near it. We’ve seen what that place does to the Harry Potter characters who end up inside, and we don’t want even a second of that. So here’s what we know about Azkaban and how to stay outside of its walls.

What is Azkaban in Harry Potter?

Azkaban is the widely feared wizarding prison in the Harry Potter series, located on a secluded North Sea island and guarded by thousands of Dementors.

We first saw the magical jail in the movie that bears its name, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Besides being one of the best movies in the entire franchise, Alfonso Cuarón’s film showed the disastrous impact of 12 years of incarceration on the crazed Sirius Black. It’s fair to say he’d looked better.

That’s the core reason for Azkaban’s “success” as a prison. It completely dehumanizes those who are trapped within it. This effect comes from the Dementors, who feed on the misery of their prisoners and suck all happiness from their lives.

Without any happiness, anybody who spends too long inside the walls of Azakaban is bound to go insane, which also suppresses their magic and makes it harder for them to escape. This place definitely gets more horrible the longer you think about it.

Azkaban prison is a horrifying location in Harry Potter

Azkaban backstory explained

Azkaban was originally a fortress established by the dark wizard Ekrizdis, who used it as a base for his vile experiments and the torture of Muggle sailors.

The fortress out in the North Sea dates back to the 15th century and little is known about its origins. It may well have been created and magically enlarged by Ekrizdis, who eventually came to use the island to act out his most horrific magical impulses on Muggles.

When Ekrizdis died, the Harry Potter spells he placed upon the island faded away. The Ministry of Magic discovered it and few of those wizards ever spoke about what they found, though they did discover a thriving colony of Dementors living on all of the island’s lingering misery. Unsurprisingly, given the level of suffering, they were breeding in great numbers.

At the time, hardline politician Damocles Rowle – ancestor of future Death Eater Thorfinn Rowle – was Minister for Magic and decided that the island would be a perfect solution to his magical prison crisis, complete with Dementors as willing guards. Future ministers only raised the smallest of objections, mostly because of the fear of unleashing hungry Dementors upon the wider world.

It’s also important to note that, from the security point of view, the process worked for centuries. Prisoners went in, and they never escaped.

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Is Azkaban based on Alcatraz?

The Harry Potter author confirmed in interviews that the real Alcatraz prison was a key inspiration for her to create Azkaban.

You won’t get an investigative reporter job at the Daily Prophet for working out that the wizarding island prison of Azkaban is at least partially based on the real-world island prison of Alcatraz. But then again, the Harry Potter author isn’t exactly the most subtle when dishing out names. A wolf called Lupin? Someone called Sirius, who can become a dog?

In a piece on Pottermore, the author explained that the name Azkaban is a combination of Alcatraz and the Hebrew word ‘Abaddon’. Abaddon is a place of despair, described as a bottomless pit. It’s also the name of a destructive being born from the abyss in the New Testament. Yep, that more or less sums up Azkaban.

Sirius Black was one of the first prisoners to escape Azkaban in Harry Potter

Has anyone escaped Azkaban?

Nobody escaped Azkaban for nearly 300 years until the Crouch family smuggled Barty Crouch Jr out. Sirius Black made it out in 1993, and several mass breakouts involving Death Eaters happened a few years later. 

The Crouch escape was a particularly fascinating case, showing a clear security flaw. Barty Crouch Jr’s mother, who was seriously ill, used Polyjuice Potion and took the place of her son during a visit. This was a sacrifice based on love, which the Dementors simply could not detect or even comprehend.

Sirius Black escaped in a different way. His absolute faith in his own innocence allowed him to cling to hope and avoid falling into irreparable insanity. When he worked out that Peter Pettigrew was hiding as a rat in Animagus form, Sirius transformed into his own animal shape as a dog and slipped past the blind Dementors.

Just a few years later, the Dementors joined forces with the resurgent Voldemort and Azkaban ceased to function as a Ministry-controlled punishment. Several mass breakouts released all of the captured Death Eaters back into the world to join their master. As we moved through the Harry Potter movies in order, Azkaban escapes got more and more common.

Helena Bonham Carter’s escape scene as Bellatrix Lestrange in the movies is a particular highlight, with the star giving by far the most unhinged performance of anybody in the Harry Potter cast. Bellatrix is insane; there’s no doubting that.

Bellatrix Lestrange is one of only a few Harry Potter characters to escape Azkaban

What happened to Azkaban after the Battle of Hogwarts?

Azkaban remained in use as a wizarding prison under the rule of Kingsley Shacklebolt as Minister for Magic, but the building was thankfully purged of Dementors.

Given how enthusiastically the Dementors fought alongside Voldemort, they were always going to lose their jobs after the war. With Shacklebolt installed as the leader of the Wizarding World, Azkaban became a far more conventional prison than it had been before, housing the surviving Death Eaters and sympathizers like Dolores Umbridge.

Instead of Dementors, the Ministry of Magic sent a regularly rotated group of Aurors to serve as guards. There hasn’t been a single escape since this system was put into place.

Dementors served as the guards of Azkaban in Harry Potter

For more on Potter’s dark side, find out why the most violent scene in Harry Potter almost went too far and learn about the Harry Potter monsters too terrifying for the movies.

We’ve also looked ahead to new movies and series in the Wizarding World with our guides to the Harry Potter TV series release date and the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child movie release date. Finally, learn why we think the Cursed Child movie should be a gay romance.

The creator of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling, has made a number of transphobic remarks on social media in recent years. If you’d like to learn more about transgender equality or lend your support, here are two charities we encourage you to visit: the National Center for Transgender Equality in the US and Mermaids in the UK.