In the world of correctional facilities where gang fights, riots, murder, and rape are normalized, danger and notoriety are common practices. We have compiled a top list of the most notorious prisons in the world, where overcrowding is rife, hygiene is not taken into consideration, and violence is mandatory.
With a life of crime, serving the time is inevitable. However, prisons that are notorious for their mistreatment of basic human rights should never be supported. Countries treat penal law differently, and as such, the correctional facilities are inevitably tougher in some regions than in others. In these countries, prisons are not treated as rehabilitation facilities but rather as places of disturbing mistreatment that always do more harm than good.
These prisons are so notorious that the movies can hardly do them justice.
7. La Sabaneta Prison, Venezuela
If you have ever researched anything about infamous prisons, you must have heard the name of La Sabaneta. Originally called The Maracaibo National Prison, this was one of the mostnotorious prisons in the world. It was located in the city of Maracaibo, in Venezuela. Venezuela has one of the largest crime rates in the world, so it is no wonder that a prison located in this country would make it onto our list.
From where did La Sabaneta’s notoriousness stem? Overcrowding.
When it was first built, this prison was made to house only about 700 inmates, but the population in the most recent years reached 3,700 prisoners. This caused havoc in the inner organization of the prison. The inmates were forced to sleep on the floor or in the hammocks that they had to hang overhead, while others slept below them.
The hygiene was questionable, with the inmates having to bathe in the same water and do their business in a plastic bag that they would throw out a window into the yard.
The crumbling facilities and horrible living conditions would often lead to the spread of disease. Rusted water pipes were filled with bacteria and parasites, making the prison the perfect breeding ground. With the inmates having to stitch their own wounds, as the medical help was limited, deaths resulting from infection and disease were common.
The worst part: Due to the horrible conditions that the prisoners were forced to live in, further incented by the overcrowding, it is no wonder that this notorious prison was the site of many tragic incidents.
Over the years, many violent gang encounters resulted in the deaths of the inmates, leading to one of Venezuela’s biggest prison tragedies – 100 inmates dying in a fire caused by a rival gang seeking revenge in 1994.
Ms. Varela, of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, called an end to the violence in the final years of the prison’s operation:
“We don’t want even one more death. Enough of the violence.”
The prison rightfully closed in 2013.
6. Tadmor Prison, Syria
Syria has been subject to many controversies, and Tadmor prison, located in Palmyra, only adds to it. Established in the 1930s by the French, it was a relatively calm place until Hafez al-Assad’s 30-year rule started in 1971.
Ill-famed for its treatment of political prisoners and prisoners of war, Tadmor prison has been a name of ill repute for more than 3 decades. It was never meant to be a place of light treatment. During Hafez al-Assad’s rule, it became a place of dread. Palestinian writer Salameh Kaileh, at one point said:
“It’s utterly unfair to call it a prison. In a prison, you have basic rights, but in Tadmur you have nothing. You’re only left with fear and horror.”
The notoriousness of the prison consisted in its torture methods inflicted upon the political dissidents. They were kept in harsh conditions, humiliated, beaten, and executed. Those that opposed Assad’s Baath Party would often find their place here, and the only way out was in a body bag.
The worst part was a symphony of fear – the vicious reality of Tadmor was the torture that transpired within its walls. According to the survivors of one of the most notorious prisons, the inmates were separated from their friends, beaten daily, left to live among rats and cockroaches, and submitted to various torture devices.
Bara Saaraj, one of the former inmates, called this gruesome daily routine “the symphony of fear.”
The prison was captured by the Islamic State in May 2015 and eventually destroyed by explosives.
5. Diyarbakir Prison, Turkey
This unsavory prison was first exposed to the world for its vile practices after the Turkish military coup of September 1980. It was built earlier that year, but its facilities were filled to the brim after the coup. It is located in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey and, sadly, a functioning prison even today.
There are many controversies related to the Diyarbakir prison, the worst of which are children sentenced to life, gruesome torture of the inmates, and gang wars within its walls. The film Midnight Express was an attempt at portraying the dreadfulness of this prison, but it fell short of reality compared to the accounts of survivors.
The facilities of Diyarbakir were crowded from the early 1980s, and the overcrowding was never resolved. This left the prison’s hygiene standards lacking, with sewage flooding the hallways and prisoners having to sleep next to their own waste.
One account of the horrors that transpired in the Diyarbakir prison comes from Altan Tan. He was 24 when his father was thrown into this vicious prison.
“He was only there for a few weeks before he was tortured to death. I never had the chance to go inside and visit him. There are no Kurds, no families who don’t have memories associated with this building.”
Altan said. His father was not the first, nor the last. 34 prisoners lost their lives due to the tortures between 1980 and 1984, while many more were horribly maimed and injured.
The worst part: The survivors of the prison never quite recovered from the traumas inflicted upon them. Many of those that managed to escape the horrors of Diyarbakir committed suicides shortly after or are struggling with severe forms of PTSD. That this prison is still a functioning jail isn’t helping anyone.
4. Administrative Maximum Facility (USP Florence ADMAX), USA
The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility or USP Florence ADMAX is an American federal prison with a very complicated name, located in Florence, Colorado. It is classed as a supermax or even higher than a maximum-security prison. It is a “control unit” prison, which means that it is used to house the worst of the worst in a strictly controlled environment.
A supermax prison is the highest-level security prison. It is specifically made to hold inmates that pose an extreme threat or high flight risk. In ADMAX, prisoners cannot leave their cells. They have very few activities and very little contact with anyone else. They are on their own, for better or worse.
Is it any different than Alcatraz, then? Well, ADMAX does follow Alcatraz’s example of what would become the supermax model, but it expands on it. It is not on our list for its horrid conditions or because it’s wicked for the torture methods. It is on our list because it has a reputation for being so strict that it is “escape-proof.”
Since it opened in 1994, no one has been able to escape the high walls of this supermax prison. Its cells are soundproof, 7×12 tight spaces, and the inmates are kept in them for 23 hours every day. They have the essentials in their cells, but contact with other inmates is forbidden, while the prison guards are carefully vetted.
The worst part: The controversial penitentiary USP Florence ADMAX houses some of the world’s most notorious convicts. Here are only some of the prisoners currently kept there: Terry Nichols, “El Chapo,” Ramzi Yousef, Eric Rudolph, Ted Kaczynski, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. With such dangerous criminals behind its walls, ADMAX Florence is one of the prisons that is best to stay open.
3. Petak Island Prison, Russia
Many prisons over the years were compared to Alcatraz, but only the Petak Island Prison resembles it. Converted in 1997 and located on an island called Ognenny Ostrov (the Fire Island), this prison is a maximum-security facility that holds the most dangerous inmates in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
It was originally built in 1517 as a Russian Orthodox monastery and converted in 1917 to house the “enemies of the revolution.” In the more recent history, in 1997, it was converted to prison to house inmates on a life sentence and death row, and, as such, it is still operating today.
The Chief Guard of the Petak Prison says the following:
“The difference between this prison and others is that in other places, prisoners see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here? It’s all darkness.”
With such a claim, it is no wonder that this prison has made it onto the list of the most notorious prisons in the world. It is not known for its brutality but rather the isolation. The conditions of isolation are so extremely harsh and life-threatening, as the prison is located on a small island in the middle of a lake. It is not surprising to learn that there haven’t been any successful escape attempts.
The worst part: Being located so far up north, 300 miles away from Moscow, the prison is in darkness for the better part of the year. The prisoners, about 200 of them, live in cold conditions, in tight confines that don’t get enough light even on the best days. On the one hour a day they have free, the inmates can walk around the windowless halls outside their cells. Their visitations are restricted to only 4 hours a year, which all adds to the extreme feeling of isolation.
2. Camp 22, North Korea
Known as one of the most controversial countries to date, it comes as no surprise to learn that some of the most notorious prisons in the world are located in this country.
North Korean prisons are called Camps, as the prisoners are often used for forced labor while serving their sentence. The worst of the Camps is the one with the number 22, or the Hoeryong concentration camp. This was a prison camp, founded in 1990—a maximum-security area, isolated from the outside world.
Its notoriousness comes from various rumors of the human experimentation that was happening within its walls. The prisoners were not only subjected to harsh, forced labor, but they were also subjects of biological and chemical experimentations done under North Korea’s questionable regime.
The prison held various political prisoners confined to small spaces and denied visitations. It was closed in 2021 by Kim Jong Il shortly after he rose to power. Supposedly, the closure was due to Kim’s disagreement with the prison camp’s policies, but it is believed that the real reason is the escape of 2 political prisoners that made it to China. The prison was boarded up quickly before news of the escape reached the inmates and caused any disturbance within.
Thousands of people are tortured to death in North Korean gulags every year. Executive director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu told DW about their living conditions.
The worst part: According to the account of Mr. Ahn Myong-Chol, who was a prison guard at Camp 22 in Hoeryong and a driver at the camps, between 1990 and 1994, the prisoners were used for human experimentations within the camps. This information was let out into the world by the former prisoners as well as the former guards. In the facilities of Camp 22, the prisoners were poked and prodded in gruesome experiments alike to the horrors of World War II and the encounters of their time. There are stories filled with terror.
1. Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Cuba
The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a military prison of the United States, located in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. It was established in 2002, by US President George W. Bush, during the War on Terror that followed the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
The notoriety of the prison lies in its practices that seriously violate human rights. The torture, indefinite detention without trial, and the conditions the inmates were kept in all drew major attention to the prison.
When it was first constructed, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was supposed to be an “island outside of the law” where those convicted or suspected of terrorism could be interrogated without any restraint. This has led to dubious practices and notorious torture methods that were performed without any supervision. Over 800 men passed through the camp since it was opened, and many were subject to brutal treatment.
At Guantanamo, prisoners were reported to be held without any legal rights or fair trial. They were kept in isolation, in freezing cold conditions, shackled and unable to move. They were deprived of food and basic hygiene, made to drink saltwater, beaten, and subjected to sleep deprivation. The abuse that transpired here was both physical and psychological.
The worst part: Widely condemned by humanitarian organizations, Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, has violated many basic human rights during its operating years. The inmates were subject to various torturous devices during interrogations. They were locked in confined cells, beaten, and deprived of sleep. The conditions they were kept in were unhygienic, and the prisoners were made to go without food or water for more than 24 hours. By 2003, there had already been 23 suicide attempts within the walls of this notorious prison.