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Five of the World’s Worst Prisons

Whether in developed or third-world countries, prisons are downright horrific places where inmates are subject to everything from violent attacks and sexual assault, to shakedowns, diseases and mental anguish that often leads to insanity and suicide. 

Most of us will never spend a year in solitary confinement at Rikers Island or two decades in Thailand’s notorious Bangkok Hilton, but thankfully others have, and now from the comfort of our air conditioned homes we can live vicariously through them while enjoying our organic oatmilk lattes. 

So without further ado, let’s step inside 5 of the world’s worst prisons.   

1. Sabaneta Prison, Maracaibo, Venezuela

Sabaneta Prison, Maracaibo, Venezuela

Though official records are spotty, by some estimates Venezuela’s prisons hold nearly five times as many inmates as they were intended to accommodate, and that for every 200 prisoners nationwide there’s only one guard. 

Each year hundreds die violent deaths, and scores more perish from dysentery, infections, malnutrition and AIDS.  

Located in the city of Maracaibo in the northeast corner of the Venezuelan state of Zulia, Sabaneta Prison, or Maracaibo National Prison, was opened in 1958. 

At its height it purportedly housed more than 3,700 prisoners – 3,000 more than it was supposed to – hundreds of which were the spouses and children of inmates, as is common in the country where living amongst predators is often a better option than remaining on the streets to fend for themselves.   

By the standards of the era in which it was built, Maracaibo National Prison featured a modern design consisting of four distinct areas intended to segregate violent offenders like rapists, murderers and armed robbers from those who’d committed nonviolent and white collar crimes.

That said, most prisoners were lumped together, and the weak were mercilessly preyed upon. 

As is the case in nearly all of the country’s prisons, guards rarely ventured inside the prison walls. 

But though governmental control was weak, frequent raids were made that turned up everything from weapons, cellphones, televisions, and narcotics, to a collection of wild animals that included a number of endangered species.

To fill the void, gangs of prisoners led by a “pran” or inmate leader controlled nearly everything from housing assignments and food distribution, to maintenance work and security.  

The meager food provided daily was nearly inedible, clean water was a dream, sanitation was abominable, and rape, extortion, muder-for-hire and drug use were rampant. 

Small-scale riots were relatively common occurrences at Sabaneta, but in early January of 1994 a fire set by disgruntled inmates led to a mass riot that by some estimates resulted in the death of nearly 150 inmates who were killed by the fire itself, machete attacks by other prisoners, and violence committed by the armed guards sent in to restore order. 

Sabaneta Prison, Maracaibo, Venezuela riots in January of 1994

The following year even more prisoners were killed, and as many as 600 were seriously wounded. 

But as bad as 1994 and 1995 were, they were eclipsed by another uprising in 2012 that was just one of a number of coordinated prison riots meant to foment reform ahead of upcoming national elections. 

In Sabaneta the chaos raged for nearly a month, during which time nearly 70 inmates were killed, many by other prisoners settling old scores.

Post-riot investigations found that the conditions inside were even more deplorable than even prison officials suspected, and that at any one time there were as few as 40 staff members on duty, the vast majority of which did little more than patrol the outside walls. 

In 2013 after more than five decades in operation the prison was officially closed and turned into a museum. 

2. Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia

Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia
Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia

Located 250 miles (400 km) north of Moscow on an isolated island amidst scenic Lake Novozero in central Russia’s Vologda region, Petak Island Prison, or Fire Island Prison, is officially referred to as Correctional Colony No. 5. 

Primarily housing those condemned to death and the proverbial worst-of-the-worst that the Russian penal system has to offer, the facility was opened in 1917 following the October Revolution. 

Many of its buildings originally belonged to a Russian Orthodox monastery that was established two centuries before, which was purportedly named after a column of fire from the sky that one priest witnessed slamming into the island. 

Not surprisingly, monasteries were of little importance in the new Soviet state, and the facilities were quickly converted into a penal colony to house White Russians, career criminals and other malcontents. 

During Stalin’s great purges of the ‘30s and ‘40s Petak Island housed political and military leaders who’d fallen out of favor, many of whom would die by execution and the rigors of forced labor.  

When Stalin died in 1953, the prison was yet again redesignated for dangerous non-political prisoners, and since the mid-’90s it has primarily housed those whose death sentences were commuted to life in the nationwide execution moratorium of 1996. 

Now the prison holds less than 200 inmates, and though by some accounts it’s not as dangerous as some of the country’s other prisons, it’s the sheer isolation and monotony that tend to drive many inmates over the proverbial edge. 

Confined to overcrowded windowless cells for much of each day, inmates are allowed only one hour outside their cells, during which time they’re only allowed to traipse aimlessly around nearby halls.

Even worse, outside visitation is limited to just four hours per year.  

Convicts who break any of the strict rules are relegated to solitary continent in freezing dark cells, sometimes for up to six months at a time. 

Due to the prison’s remoteness, island location and the area’s harsh climate, the risk of escape is minimal, and though some have tried, none have succeeded. 

One prison guard summed up existence at Petak Island succinctly when he said that unlike other facilities where for some inmates there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, at Petak there’s only darkness and hopelessness. 

In 2004, a human rights report published by the US State Department described existence inside Petak as harsh and often life-threatening. 

AIDS, tuberculosis and attacks and beatings by other inmates and guards are common, and prisoners frequently swallow silverware, scrap metal and other foreign objects so they’ll be sent to the prison hospital for a few days of R and R. 

What the US State Department failed to mention, was that in most respects Petak isn’t that different from many American prisons, like the next gem on this list.  

3. Rikers Island

Rikers Island
Rikers Island Jail by Tim Rodenberg is licensed under CC-BY

Sprawling over more than 400 acres on an island in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, New York’s Rikers Island is commonly referred to as the largest penal colony in the world. 

Operated by the New York City Department of Corrections and consisting of nearly a dozen distinct jails, the facility typically houses 10,000 inmates and detainees on any given day, with the number occasionally swelling to 15,000.

The only road access to Rikers is via the 4,000+ foot (1.25 km) Francis Buono Bridge, which especially for first timers can seem like the highway to hell. 

In American corrections jargon, Rikers is technically a jail not a prison, but it’s a distinction lost on those unlucky enough to find themselves on the inside, most of whom are local offenders awaiting trials, sentencing, or pending transfers, or who are serving terms shorter than a year. 

Detainees are classified and often segregated depending on their sex, age, alleged crimes, length of sentence and whether they have physical or emotional ailments, substance abuse problems or contagious diseases. 

Since it opened in 1932, Rikers garnered a reputation as both a dangerous and poorly run place of abject horror characterized by unchecked violence and unthinkable conditions.. 

Though it was never meant to be one, huge influxes of detainees and prisoners sent from other shuttered facilities dictated that Rikers was forced to function as a temporary detention facility, or as some call it, a dumping ground.  

Riots and hostage situations abound, brought about by overcrowding, grotesque sanitary conditions, staff assaults, sexual predation and prisoners languishing for years awaiting trials that never seem to materialize. 

In fact, many civil rights advocates have argued that the conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and are therefore unconstitutional.

Over the years things deteriorated to the point that the federal government intervened multiple times, yet circumstances continued to spiral downward despite larger budgets and promises of reform from disinterested politicians. 

In the ‘70s 1,500 inmates went on a prolonged hunger strike to protest a law that significantly reduced time off for good behavior, and the following decade nearly 100 refused to leave their cells for court appearances because they claimed their attorneys never visited them. 

Meanwhile in the mismanaged chaos, escapes were common, in one stretch surpassing 100 in just five years. 

In 2012 the city’s Department of Corrections reported that nearly 15 percent of incarcerated adolescents – some as young as 16 – were held in solitary confinement for extended periods, sometimes for months or years on end. 

In addition, almost half of them had previously diagnosed mental health problems for which they received little care.  

In perhaps the most egregious case, 16-year-old African American Kalief Browder who was arrested for stealing a backpack languished at Rikers for nearly three years, nearly two of which were spent in solitary confinement, all because his family couldn’t come up with $3,000 for bail   

For the relatively minor offense, the juvenile had appeared in nearly three dozen hearings, though the charges were eventually dismissed in June of 2013. 

Browder committed suiced in 2015, which his family directly attributes to the emotional and physical distress he suffered during his time at Rikers. 

In mid-2019, 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman Layleen Polanco died in solitary confinement at Rikers after staff failed to provide medical care for nearly an hour after an epileptic seizure.

Though it’s been slated for closure before, Rikers is once again scheduled for official shutdown in 2027. 

4. Bang Kwang Prison, Bangkok, Thailand

Bang Kwang Prison, Bangkok, Thailand

Located along the scenic shores of the Chao Phraya River about 7 miles (11 km) north of downtown Bangkok, few prisons have the reputation of Thailand’s Bang Kwang Central Prison.

Commonly referred to as the “Bangkok Hilton” for its terrifying atmosphere and abominable conditions, some who’ve been unfortunate to spend time behind its imposing walls prefer to call it “Big Tiger.”

Since it opened in the early 1930s, Bang Kwang has housed nearly all of the country’s worst offenders, but though most are Thai, others are foreigners serving terms or awaiting sentencing for crimes ranging from rape, drug trafficking and murder, to extortion, human smuggling and armed robbery. 

Most inmates at Bang Kwang have been sentenced to terms exceeding 25 years, and in many cases they’re doing life and even awaiting execution for particularly heinous offenses, but others remain trapped in a hellish limbo as the appeals process grinds on, often for years. 

Bang Kwang is also home to Thailand’s execution chamber and men’s death row, and in recent years the total prison population has swelled to nearly 6,000 inmates, though it was originally intended to hold less than half that. 

The prison has undergone multiple renovations over the decades, but in many respects conditions today aren’t much different than they were when it opened. 

All prisoners are required to wear leg irons for the first three months of incarceration, and until recently those on death row had theirs permanently welded in place. 

A typical morning consists of rising at 6 AM, taking a communal shower with hundreds of other naked criminals, dining on the free prison breakfast which usually consists of rice porridge peppered with insects and other unidentifiable bits of often putrid plant and animal matter, then congregating in the courtyard for a mandatory singing of the national anthem. 

Then, most inmates head off to assigned jobs that include maintenance and construction work, cooking and cleaning, laundry and making shoes, though many are deemed too dangerous to work and are confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day.  

However despite the semblance of order, Bang Kwang is rife with predatory behavior that flourishes and goes largely unchecked by the woefully outnumbered guards.

Shakedowns, protection rackets, rapes, assaults and murders are common, as are suicides for those who’ve lost all hope. 

Much of what goes on inside is run by criminal gangs, and contraband including drugs, tobacco, weapons and cell phones are common, and are sometimes smuggled in by prison staff who get paid very little and are often threatened into helping against their will. 

But though the prison is terrifying even during the day when most inmates are distracted by work and routine, at night it purportedly takes on an otherworldly atmosphere akin to a horror movie when the cells are slammed shut. 

It’s at night that most assaults, rapes and murders take place, and though the eerie wails of the victims often echo down the dark hallways, few dare come to their aid. 

In the early ‘80s Englishman Alan John Davies was the first westerner to be sentenced to death in Thailand for conspiring to smuggle heroin out of the country.  

However, Davies was freed 17 years later after being granted amnesty by the country’s King. 

He described his experience inside Bang Kwang Prison as “absolute hell.” 

5. La Santé Prison, Paris, France

La Santé Prison, Paris, France
Photo by Mbzt is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though it wasn’t technically opened until August of 1867, La SantéPrison in Paris’ Montparnasse district unofficially housed prisoners since the French Revolution.  

Now more than 150 years later, it’s still among the country’s most notorious prisons, which one guard recently referred to as, “by definition a place of violence.” 

In the early days convicts from other correctional facilities were sent to La Santébefore ultimately being transferred to the penal colony in French Guiana made famous by Henrie Charrière’s autobiography Papillon

In fact, some inmates like 27-year-old Eugene Boyer, who was pardoned just minutes before his scheduled execution ended up as renamed characters in the book which was first published in 1969.  

Initially consisting of just 500 two-man cells just 13 feet (4 meters) long, 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide and 10 feet (3 meters) high, at the turn of the 20th century the number was doubled to accommodate more than 2,000 inmates.  

Over the years La Santé was a guillotine execution hotspot, the first of which was a public event outside the prison walls that took place in August of 1909 when Georges Duchemin was beheaded for murdering his parents. 

All told more than three dozen prisoners were executed both in and just outside the prison.

Public executions were subsequently banned in 1939, though private ones continued until the early ‘80s.  

As the prison aged, became more overcrowded, and public sentiment toward criminals hit all time lows, La Santé became the country’s national leader in inmate suicides, which in some years exceeded 100. 

In 2000, the prison’s senior doctor published a book denouncing the sad state of affairs inside, and the subsequent uproar prompted previously indifferent officials to evaluate the situation and address chronic issues like rodent and insect infestation, ubiquitous mould, communicable diseases exacerbated by unsanitary conditions and communal showers, and unusable overflowing toilets. 

One of La Sante’s most unique characteristics was that up until just a few decades ago to quell racially motivated violence, prisoners were segregated based on their nationalities. 

Now with an influx of immigrants in recent years, Algerians and other North Africans make up nearly a third of the prison’s population.

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