Along with true crime fascination, there’s a contemporary curiosity about corrupt and neglected prison systems across the globe. Meant to rehabilitate society’s worst, prisons devolve into nightmarish hell-scapes that harm more than reform. Documentation of the horrors is widespread. National Geographic Channel’s Locked Up Abroad tells real-life stories of people locked up in international prisons. There are documentary series that go inside the toughest prisons worldwide, showing viewers what prisoners endure. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and violence are common throughout. Ripped from headlines, here are seven of the worst prisons in the world.
La Sabaneta, Maracaibo, Venezuela. In a country with overcrowded and violent prisons, La Sabaneta stands out as the worst. The risk of murder at the hands of guards and other inmates is constant. So, prisoners crammed into cells together wield homemade knives for protection. They’re served only breakfast and lunch and get water from rotting bathroom pipes. At any given time, there are only 12 guards on duty for the 1,600 inmates. (x)
Rikers Island, New York. Scheduled for closing by 2026, Rikers has become representative of all the problems with the American justice system. In the nineties it held 23,000 inmates, but now 7,000 live in the prison daily. Violence is constant, from other prisoners and guards, and extended time in solitary confinement is rote. (x)
Bang Kwang Central Prison, Thailand. Known as Bangkok Hilton, this prison is renowned for poor sanitary conditions and violence between prisoners and guards. A former prisoner described the prison as ‘no purgatory, just hell’. In 2000, an Australian woman escaped Bang Kwang after her arrest for her friend’s drug purchase. She described conditions of overcrowding, maggot-filled meals, communal bathing, and regular beatings. (x)
Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia. On an island, this prison is a former monastery that houses about 200 of Russia’s most dangerous criminals. Few expect to leave the island alive. There are stories of prisoners swallowing nails and utensils to get sent to the hospital for a reprieve from the isolation. Rule violations can land inmates in solitary for 6 months at a time, and the permitted visitation time for all prisoners is 4 hours per year. (x)
ADX-Florence Supermax, Florence, Colorado. The most secure super-max prison in the country, ADX-Florence has housed high profile criminals like the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, a 9/11 conspirator, the unabomber, and the shoe bomber. A former warden described the prison as “far much worse than death”. Once inside, prisoners spend 23 hours a day alone and will never see outside the walls of the prison again. Many prisoners self-destruct or commit suicide in these conditions of intense isolation, described as worse than Guantánamo. (x)
San Quentin, California. This hundred-year-old super-max prison is still analog, with each cell locking by hand only. It houses California’s death row inmates, some of the most dangerous and infamous criminals in the state, including serial killer Wayne Adam Ford and Scott Peterson. Before conditions improved, mental illness was rampant along death row with inmates spending their days with maggots in the clothes and hair as they spread human waste on their cell walls. (x)
La Sante, Paris, France. La Sante closed from 2014 to 2019 for renovations and updates, but the prison conditions before that were in stark contrast to the sophistication of Paris. Soon after she began working at the prison, Dr. Veronique Vasseur, began keeping a diary which she later turned into an expose book. It describes overcrowded cells filled with lice, insects, and rats. Prisoners housed there had the highest suicide rate amongst European prions and suffered skin diseases, lack of medical care, and swallowed utensils and rat poison. (x)