Prisons are one of the most common punishments for criminals globally. In almost every country, there are some forms of jails where criminals pay the price for the crimes they commit by forfeiting their freedom.
Although spending time in prison is not intended as a vacation, the experiences of those who serve time in prison vary from one prison to the next, depending on the conditions, facilities, and punishments in each prison.
Some prisons are significantly worse than others, so which are the worst prisons in America? Here is a look at the 20 worst prisons in America that even the most hardened criminals want to avoid.
20. Ely State Prison, Ely Nevada
Ely State Prison in Nevada is located in a rural area far away from the rest of society. It houses the state’s execution chamber, which was created in 2016. There are reports of inmate mistreatment and psychological intimidation. It was these issues that led to the inmates staging a riot in 2010. During the riot, both inmates and guards suffered serious injuries.
19. Folsom State Prison, Folsom, California
Folsom State Prison is the second-oldest prison in California, and its claim to fame is that it was the first prison in the United States to have electricity. Unfortunately, the prison is also known for its long record of brutal gang violence. Another reason Folsom State Prison is known is for its infamous inmates, who have included criminals such as Suge Knight and Charles Manson.
18. Prison with the Most Riots: Penitentiary of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico
A problem that many prisons encounter is inmate riots, ad one of the worst American prisons for riots is the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says USA by Numbers.
One of the worst riots in this prison took place in 1980 when 12 officers were held captive. The riot ended in the death of 33 inmates. Some of the inmates who died were child sex offenders, and they were killed, dissected, and burned during the riots.
17. William C. Holman Correctional Facility, Atmore, Alabama
The William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, was ranked as the most violent prison in the United States in 2016. It is a maximum-security facility that houses the state’s only execution chamber.
Overcrowding is one of the biggest problems at this prison, as it often accommodates more than 1,000 prisoners, despite being built for under 600 inmates. An investigation into abuse and violence at the facility led to the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections announcing in 2020 that the prison would be decommissioned.
Although more than half the inmates have since moved to other facilities, the prison currently remains in operation.
16. Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York
In recent years, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York has taken steps to improve its bad reputation, although it is still not enough to keep it off the list of the worst prisons in the United States. Conditions at the facility were at their worst around the turn of the Millennium, when the decrepit buildings had leaking roofs, and gang violence was a daily occurrence. Violence is an ongoing issue, and other problems include drugs and poor health facilities.
15. Largest Death Row Facility in the US: San Quentin State Prison, San Rafael, California
According to Bustle, San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, has the largest death row facility in the United States. Of the 3,000-plus prisoners serving time in the jail, more than 700 are awaiting execution on death row.
Those on death row are only allowed to shower every other day, and they spend just five hours outside their cells daily. Aside from the number of prisoners facing execution, mental illness is a big issue at this prison, and the facility struggles to provide adequate health care to its prisoners.
14. Largest Maximum-Security Prison in the US: Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana
Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, is named as one of the worst prisons in the US by WOL DC News. It is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, as it holds 5,000 inmates, and it is known as the Alcatraz of the South.
The facility covers 18,000 acres, and there are over 2,000 staff watching over the prisoners. It is considered one of the worst prisons in the country due to the nature of the crimes committed by the inmates.
13. One of the United States’ Largest Prisons: Rikers Island, New York City, New York
Rikers Island in New York City is one of the United States’ largest prisons, as it has the capacity to house 15,000 criminals, although it currently houses approximately 10,000. It also has ten separate prisons on the island, and it has one of the country’s highest solitary confinement rates.
There are multiple problems at this island jail, including violence, drugs, rape, and staff brutality. Due to the extent of the problems in this prison, it is easy to assume that it is a high-security prison housing some of the country’s worst criminals, but that is not the case. It mainly houses pretrial prisoners and nonviolent offenders that have short sentences.
12. Reeves County Detention Complex, Pecos, Texas
Two of the biggest issues at Reeves County Detention Complex in Pecos, Texas, are overcrowding and understaffing. It is a private prison company that houses approximately 3,750 prisoners at any one time.
Most of those detained in the complex have committed nonviolent crimes, including entering the country without the proper permission and documentation. In addition to overcrowding and understaffing, the complex has a bad reputation for inadequate medical care.
11. One of the Worst Women’s Prisons in America: Julia Tutwiler Prison, Wetumpka, Alabama
Although it is only a small prison with only 400 inmates, Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama is also one of the worst prisons in the United States. It is a maximum-security facility that houses a death row for female prisoners facing the death sentence.
In the past, there have been incidents of abuse towards the inmates from the wardens, including sexual assault and rape. In 2011, six wardens were charged with various sex crimes. Although they all pled guilty, only two served time.
10. Prison with the Most People in Solitary Confinement: Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, California
With 3,500 prisoners, Pelican Bay State Prison is one of the most-populated prisons in the United States. Furthermore, it is also the one with the highest level of inmates in solitary confinement, as there are approximately 1,500 inmates in solitary confinement at any one time.
Those in either the Administrative Housing Unit or the Security Housing Unit are alone in tiny windowless cells for up to 22.5 hours each day. They spend the other hour and a half alone in concrete exercise pens.
9. United States Penitentiary Marion, Marion, Illinois
United States Penitentiary Marion opened in 1963, and within 15 years, it had become the country’s highest security prison. It is one of only two facilities in the country to have a Communication Management Unit, and episodes of violence have forced the facility into long-term lockdown. Some of the most famous inmates of this prison include Pete Rose and John Gotti.
8. Idaho Correctional Center, Kuna, Idaho
Due to the gang violence at Idaho Correctional Center in Kuna, it has been labeled a gladiator school. While the wardens are supposed to protect the inmates and prevent violence, they actively encourage fighting, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Idaho in 2010. The lawsuit led to demands for the prison to increase staffing and training, but the prison had still not complied two years later.
7. United States Penitentiary Tucson, Tucson, Arizona
United States Penitentiary Tucson has housed many notable prisoners. Some of these include Anthony Casso, who was sentenced to 455 years in jail and died while serving his sentence.
Others include pedophile Brian David Mitchell, murderer Steven Dale Green, murderer Louis Eppolito, activist Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, drug trafficker Ross Ulbricht, racketeer Whitey Bulger, and sex trafficker Keith Raniere. Several political figures have also served time in the Tucson prison, including Timothy Villagomez, Phillip Giordano, and Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham. The biggest problem at the prison is violent attacks between the inmates.
6. Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary: Leavenworth, Kansas
Arrest Records lists Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas as one of the worst prisons in the US. It is an all-male prison that is home to some of America’s most dangerous criminals, including George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Bugs Moran. The prison is known for its repressive conditions, which include a lack of ventilation.
5. Prisons Under Investigation: Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, Louisiana
There have been multiple issues with Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans over the years, but it first came to the public’s attention following Hurricane Katrina. The prisoners were left in terrible conditions after the natural disaster, with no food, clean water, electricity, or ventilation. Many were also standing in sewage-tainted water when they were discovered.
There are also reports of drugs and violence within the prison walls. Due to the high level of allegations, the prison is subject to an ongoing FBI investigation.
4. Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Los Angeles
The Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles is the largest jail system in the United States, as it houses 9,500 inmates. A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union says that around 4,500 complaints were made annually by inmates, with reports of attacks and rapes involving both inmates and staff.
3. Tent City Jail, Phoenix, Arizona
One of the most unusual prisons in the US is Tent City Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. It was opened in 1993 by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He used Army surplus tents from the Korean War to create a makeshift prison camp to save the state money on building a new prison. Although a few permanent buildings have since been added that are used for showers and dining, prisoners still sleep in the tents.
They are uncooled in the summer and unheated in the winter, so the sleeping conditions are dire. The meager food is not seasoned, the men are forced to wear pink underpants, and the prisoners work in chain gangs.
2. Allan B. Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas
The Alan B. Polunsky Unit is considered the hardest place to serve time in Texas, and it has also been labeled one of the most lethal prisons in the democratic world. The prison is known as death row, as it is where those who have been given the death sentence live out the end of their days.
Those serving time there spend 22 hours a day in the single cells, and they have no aces to distractions such as the television or visitors. It is not unusual for prisoners to attempt suicide rather than wait for the final day of their death sentence.
There is a mandatory period of three years from sentencing to execution day, and it is longer if the prisoners fight the sentence. For many, the emotional torture they experience is too much to take.
1. The Worst Prison in America: US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colorado
According to Type Investigations, US Penitentiary Administration Maximum in Florence is also known as ADX and has earned the nickname of the Alcatraz of the Rockies.
It is one of the world’s most secure prisons, and it is repeatedly included in lists of the world’s worst prisons, so it is hardly surprising that it is the worst prison in America. One of the biggest problems the prisoners face is segregation from other people.
Not only are they cut off from the outside world and not allowed visitors, but they are also separated from the other prisoners and do not even see the wardens. The cells are concrete blocks with steel doors and a chute leading to a private exercise area so the prisoners do not get to mix.
Most of those detained in the jail are terrorists, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and Syed Fahad Hashmi, who supplied rain ponchos and socks to Al Qaeda.
You can also read:
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson