11/11/2014 01:04 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

At Hohenschonhausen

Though Berlin is one of Europe's most diverse and progressive cities, it doesn't take long for a foreign visitor to start to feel like they're partaking in a form of gloom tourism. Should we visit the Stasi Museum or the Holocaust Memorial? The Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue or the Reichstag? The bronze Stars of David commemorating Jewish Shoah victims embossed in the sidewalks below, and billboards with messages such as, "We Must Never Forget" overhead can feel like a non-stop assault of the city's horror-filled past. It was on a fittingly gray day that I decided to take the S-Bahn to former East Berlin to visit one of the landmarks I had not yet seen, Hohenschonhausen, which, from 1951-1989 served as the Stasi's most notorious prison. Despite the promise of more grim subject matter, the possibility of a live tour led by an actual DDR-era inmate was too hard to resist.

I arrived at the block and barbed wire building after a Vietnamese lunch in a nearby mall. A small tour was just forming outside the prison gates and I tagged along with a group of visiting Germans and Swiss. Tours auf Deutsch had the best chance of a former inmate as guide, and we were in luck. At the front of our pack stood Jorge Luis Garcia Vazquez, a lively Cuban linguist who had come to Karl-Marx Stadt from Havana in the early 1980s to work as an interpreter. In 1987, at age 28, he landed in Hohenschonhausen after helping a fellow Cuban musician to defect across the Atlantic through West Berlin.

Vazquez, now in his fifties and happily settled, led us through cell blocks and interrogation chambers, all stark and grey, and possessed of a kitschy quality reminiscent of a John LeCarre film. Though the physical torture that characterized the prison's early years had mostly ceased by the eighties, Vasquez emphasized that psychological torture was just as insidious: sleep deprivation, isolation, water terror, and the other specialized methods the Stasi perfected. His anecdotes about Hohenschonhausen brought the colorless cell blocks to chromatic life, though the story that made the greatest impression took place miles away. After serving his sentence, Vazquez was sent home to Havana, where, wandering the city in 1989, he overheard a German tourist mention that the Berlin wall had fallen. Upon hearing this news, Vazquez sunk to his knees and asked in a whisper, "How many dead?" When the tourist told him the wall had fallen peacefully he started to weep.

Captivated by our guide's stories we trudged through grim corridors and dank chambers, surfacing in the prison's fenced yard. There, beneath brick and barbed wire where inmates were once allowed thirty minutes of daylight, Vazquez gave a quick pitch on the human rights work he was doing for Cuba and then set us free.

I walked out of Hohenschonhausen educated about the Stasi's methods and impressed by the personal life of our guide, but strangely sanguine, and far less horrified than by any site I had seen in Berlin. This struck me as odd since my fellow tour mates were quite shaken up, but then I remembered: they weren't American.

Though the exact figure is not known, thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated at Hohenschonhausen over thirty-some years. While this is by any standard horrific, I come from a country with more prisoners than any other country in the world. Home to 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. houses 25 percent of its prisoners, a total of 2.3 million. In my home state of California, more public money is spent on prisons than universities. Prison life is a stronghold of American popular culture, with numerous books, TV shows, music, and movies depicting life behind bars. The conditions in American prisons, where inmates are physically and sexually assaulted at alarming rates make the psychological torment of Hohenschonhausen seem almost quaint. And though the term "political prisoner" is not common in U.S. parlance, the racial disparities (African-Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of Whites, and comprise nearly 40 percent of the prison population) and the fact that debtors can serve time for economic insolvency, point to a use of the term the East would have been quick to employ.

On the S-Bahn back to West Berlin, the Stalinist block architecture gave way to Gropius and green space as we crossed the line where the wall once divided enemy states. The skies were still gray, but the streets were bustling with busy Berliners enjoying the lively café scene the city is known for. Punk rockers rolled cigarettes outside Checkpoint Charlie; young hipsters drank cider near Brandenburg Gate. In few other cities are the sea changes of Western history more on display than Berlin.

Hohenschonhausen was proof of the change in the city. A city which, in stark contrast to my home country, appears less bound by than liberated from the chains of its past. A Cuban linguist who longed to escape East Germany to cross the Atlantic now lives a free life in Berlin giving tours of the cells where he was once imprisoned. It's a freedom about which, across the Atlantic, 2.3 million prisoners can only dream.