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The 20 Worst Prisons in the World

Penal de Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador

If you’re going to do the crime, there's a very good chance that at some point or another, you’re going to have to do the time. But with some country's attitude to penal justice being a crime in itself, you may want to be careful about where you step out of line. Here we take a look at some of the worst prisons in the world, where tuberculous is on the rise, overcrowding is rife, and where you’re just as likely to die at the hands of the wardens as you at the inmates.

20. Attica Correctional Facility, New York

This maximum-security prison in Attica, New York has a long history of strife, having experienced multiple riots since it first opened its doors in 1930. One of the worst incidents came in 1971 when 2220 inmates were driven to take 42 staff members hostage after enduring years of appalling conditions. The riot eventually ended after 4 days, but not before 39 people (including 10 employees) had been killed. These days, it’s home to around 2000 of the most dangerous criminals in New York State, many of whom have been transferred from other facilities for being too badly behaved to house anywhere else.

19. La Sante Prison, Paris, France

In 2002 alone, 122 inmates at Paris’s La Sante Prison killed themselves. In 2003, there were another 73 suicides. Many of those included in these numbers took their life by swallowing drain cleaner, a horrendous death that was worryingly seen as a better option than enduring the prison’s insufferable conditions.

18. San Quentin State Prison, USA

Johnny Cash may have hated every inch of San Quentin, but we doubt many of its inmates are any too fond of the prison either. Infamous for its violent, harsh conditions, the facility is, or has been, home to some of the most hardened criminals in California, including Charles Manson, Scott Peterson, and Sirhan Sirhan. It has at least moved on from its reputation for corruption and the interracial riots of the 1930s, but as the only death row facility in the state for male inmates, it’s still not exactly somewhere you’d want to spend your vacation.

17. La Sabaneta Prison, Venezuela

Severe overcrowding, gang violence, abuse, disease… the list of reasons for La Sabaneta Prison in Venezuela making our list makes for some grim reading. According to The Telegraph, Venezuela is the second most violent country in the world, with over one in 1000 being killed each year. Of those that do the killing, a large majority of them end up at Sabaneta, a prison designed to hold 700 inmates at most, but which currently holds around 3700. Along with the filthy conditions, the appalling prisoner-to-guard ratio of about 150:1 means the prison is largely under the control of its various gangs.

16. Rikers Island, New York, NY

Given that Rikers Island, New York serves as an in-between house for low-grade offenders awaiting trial or transfer (as well as a few locals serving short sentences of 1 year or less), it seems an odd addition to our list. However, while the inmates may be pleasant enough, the guards are another matter entirely. After years of whispers about systematic abuse (and 7 lawsuits for guard-sanctioned violence), the New York Times ran an expose on the prison in 2009. Things clearly didn’t change after the report, and 4 years later, it was found that around 129 inmates had come to serious harm at the hands of guards, a figure made all the worse by the fact that of those 129, 77% had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

15. Bang Kwang Central Prison, Thailand

Overcrowded and with a reputation as one of the worst prisons in the world for inmate abuse, Bang Kwang Central Prison in Thailand comes in at number 15. Originally designed to hold no more than 3500 inmates, these days the prison jokingly referred to as the “Bangkok Hilton” holds 8000, 10% of whom are on death row (if you’re not sure how to tell which are which, the ones sentenced to death are those with iron shackles welded to their legs; the ones serving lesser sentences are just the obviously malnourished, overworked, diseased ones doing their best to avoid both the plagues of rats and the notoriously abusive guards, who see neither pregnancy, age, or mental illness as valid reasons for an inmate to escape a good kicking).

14. Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia

Anywhere known as the “Alcatraz of Russia” is probably not going to be somewhere you’d want to spend much time. Inside the walls of Petak Island Prison, you’ll find some of Russia’s most dangerous criminals, most of whom will come out in a far worse mental state than they went in with. “This place destroys people,” prison psychologist Svetlana Kiselyova told The Telegraph. “The first nine months or so they spend adapting. After three or four years, their personalities begin to deteriorate. There is no way anyone can spend 25 years in a place like this without being psychologically destroyed.”

13. USP Florence ADMAX, Florence, Colorado

Anyone considered too dangerous for a normal maximum-security facility gets shipped off to number 13 on our list, the notorious USP Florence ADMAX. With some of the most high-profile criminals in the world housed within its walls, the prison is designed to ensure that prisoners have no idea where in the prison they are at any one time, with a four-inch by four-inch slit being the only source of natural light they have. 23 hours of solitary confinement is normal practice, while those looking to stretch their limbs have to contend themselves with walking in circles around a concrete pit. Former Warden Robert Hood probably summed up what we’re all thinking when he described the prison as a “cleaner version of hell”.

12. Penal de Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador

You’d think a prison that houses some of the most violent criminals in the world would have a full complement of highly experienced guards at its disposal. ‘Fraid not. At the Penal de Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador, the guard to inmate ratio is an appalling 1:50, leaving the prisoners free to create their own hierarchies. something that as we know, rarely turns out well.

11. Diyarbakir Prison, Turkey

Turkey is already notorious for its terrible record in human rights, but the picture gets even uglier if you look inside its prisons. The conditions at Diyarbakir are so extreme that inmates have attempted everything from hunger strikes to setting themselves on fire to try and draw attention to the atrocities being committed at the facilities – so far, neither the Turkish government nor anyone else have done very much to improve their bleak existence.

10. Mendoza Prison, Argentina

What do you get when you put three times more inmates in a prison than its walls were built to hold? In the case of Mendoza Prison, Argentina, such extreme overcrowding that inmates are forced to squash themselves into cells of 4 square meters with up to 4 other prisoners, use plastic bags and bottles as their washrooms, and seek assistance from a doctor only in the case rigor mortis has already set in.

9. El Rodeo, Venezuela

Another entry from Venezuela comes with El Rodeo, a maximum-security facility that holds around 50000 of the most violent criminals in the country. Gang violence and rioting are commonplace, and the armed forces have even had to be called in on occasion to put an end to gang wars.

8. Butyrka Prison, Russia

Russia isn’t exactly known for its sympathetic approach to dissenters, and the Butyrka Prison in Moscow is a prime example of how the country treats its criminal element. Not only is overcrowding an issue (with cells intended for 10 inmates having to stretch to 100), but disease is rife, with AIDS and tuberculosis both being particular concerns.

7. Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Kenya

If you learn a prison regularly suffers outbreaks of cholera, you know something’s not quite right. At the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Kenya, cholera turns out to be the least of the prisoners worries. Malnutrition, rape, inadequate medical care and systemic abuse are all such everyday occurrences at the 1200-acre facility, it’s earned itself a place at number 7 on our roundup.

6. Camp 22, North Korea

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that inmates in North Korea are likely to be some of the most badly treated in the world, but the goings-on at Camp 22 are likely to shock even the toughest nut. Believed to house over 50000 men, women and children (mostly innocent: in Notch Korea, they like to bring the entire family along for the ride), the prison thinks nothing of setting its inmates to toil for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the fields and mines, with barely more than a piece of bread and drop of water to keep them going,

5. Gitarama Prison, Rwanda

As the holder of the title of most overcrowded prison in the world, Gitarama Prison in Rwanda has managed to defy the laws of physics by shutting 7000 inmates into a building designed to hold a maximum of 400. So extreme are the conditions that the prisoners are forced to stand all day long with no shoes on a floor so filthy that over a dozen die each day as a result of the botched attempts to amputate their feet once the rot sets in.

4. Nairobi Prison, Kenya

Nairobi Prison in Kenya was established in 1911 with the intention of housing 800 prisoners. Fast forward to today, and somehow, the prison has magically become capable of hosting nearly 4000. As reported by the BBC, 12 inmates are forced to share filthy, concrete ‘cages” intended for a maximum of 3 people, leading David Mwania, governor of the facility, to note "This is the worst congested prison in the country." Overcrowding isn’t the only problem: disease, violence, and systemic abuse are all rife.

3. Black Beach Prison, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

Anyone sentenced to a term at Black Beach Prison in Equatorial Guinea can look forward to such joys as malnutrition, overcrowding, torture, chronic disease, guard brutality, and even the occasion rat infestation. Fancy giving it a whirl? Thought not.

2. Gldani Prison, Tbilisi, Georgia

Inmates at Georgia's Gldani Prison tend to be very quiet, not only because of the prison’s borderline psychotic approach to stamping out anyone who so much as breathes too heavily, but because violent sexual assaults, savage beatings, and tuberculosis epidemics do tend to leave one rather too tired to do much except to lie on the floor and hope for some kind of miracle.

1. San Juan de Lurigancho, Lima, Peru

If you fancy spending your days watching cockfights, playing with the latest black-market technology, enjoying a fine selection of drugs (and even the occasional visit from a very particular kind of “nurse”), you might enjoy a staycation at Peru’s San Juan de Lurigancho prison. You probably won’t get out alive, of course, what with there being hardly any guards to prevent the 7000 inmates killing each other left right and center, but still, it’ll be an experience. Famous for being one of the harshest prisons in South America, San Juan de Lurigancho problems come largely as a result of gross overcrowding. Originally designed to hold a maximum of 2500, it currently holds around 11500 in its dingy, crumbling walls. As PRI notes, other than sex offenders, there’s no segregation, leaving violent, hardened criminals free to mingle with young, petty offenders. The prison has witnessed numerous newsworthy episodes of the years, including the deaths of 90 inmates during a riot in 1986, and the killing of the Peruvian girlfriend of a Dutch inmate, who proceeded to bury her below his cell’s floor.

Allen Lee

Written by Allen Lee

Allen Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer who studied business in school but has since turned to other pursuits. He spends more time than is perhaps wise with his eyes fixed on a screen either reading history books, keeping up with international news, or playing the latest releases on the Steam platform, which serve as the subject matter for much of his writing output. Currently, Lee is practicing the smidgen of Chinese that he picked up while visiting the Chinese mainland in hopes of someday being able to read certain historical texts in their original language.

Read more posts by Allen Lee

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