10 of the Worst Prisons in the World

By: Rachel Despres

worst prisons
The Rikers Island jail complex, one of the worst prisons in the U.S., stands on the banks of the East River in New York City. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

For many centuries, being imprisoned has been considered punishment for crimes committed. Prisons around the world vary in size and amenities offered, particularly dependent on the types of criminals they house. Minimum security “luxury” prisons are known to have comfortable beds, access to private bathrooms, and recreational activities including rock climbing, tennis and horseback riding. But there are prisons on the other end of the spectrum as well, those that are severely overcrowded, contain excessively violent atmospheres, and lack proper medical care for inmates. This list highlights 10 of the worst places to get locked up.


10. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Located on the eastern tip of Cuba, this American-owned prison was opened in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 to house Taliban and al-Queda prisoners captured in Afghanistan. While President Obama, upon his election, vowed to close the prison, it is still fully operational to this day and contains over 150 inmates in its two camps: Camp Delta and Camp Iguana. Once the site of the notorious Camp X-Ray, a temporary holding facility which closed in 2002, detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture) such as waterboarding and sense deprivation.

9. San Quentin State Prison, USA

The oldest prison in California, San Quentin is notoriously known for its violence. It has been home to many infamous criminals, including Charles Manson, Scott Peterson and Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. It has the only death row facility in the state for male inmates (the largest facility in the United States), and is home to California’s only gas chamber. In the 1930s, San Quentin had a reputation for corruption and interracial riots that were encouraged by the guards.

8. Terre Haute, USA

This prison complex in Indiana consists of maximum-security, medium-security and low-security units. Nicknamed “Guantanamo North,” Terre Haute is home to the federal government’s execution chamber. Death row inmates are housed in a Special Confinement Unit where they live in small cells by themselves and are let out only three times per week to use the exercise cages. This is the facility where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bomber, will live until his execution.

7. La Sabaneta Prison, Venezuela

This heavily overcrowded facility is home to more than 3,700 prisoners who live in a space designed to accommodate only 700 individuals. Such overcrowding breeds disease and violence among the inmates. La Sabaneta is ruled by a system of corruption, where guards give preferential treatment to those with money and power. These select individuals are able to sleep within the cells on a bed, while everyone else must use a hammock in the corridors. And there is no daily routine of set activities, allowing the inmates to do and behave as they wish, often leading to extremely violent encounters that stem from their lack of mental stimulation and cramped living quarters.


6. Diyarbakir Prison, Turkey

Diyarbakir Prison is known for having the greatest number of human rights violations per inmate. This house of torture exerts both mental and physical abuse on a daily basis, driving many inmates to take their own lives. When families visit they don’t dare speak a word, for these words can be used as punishment against their imprisoned loved ones. Built to hold only 700 prisoners, both men and women (in separate areas), the facility is often severely overcrowded.

5. Mendoza Prison, Argentina

With a population over three times its capacity, Mendoza Prison is a madhouse. As many as five inmates are crowded into cells that measure only four square meters. And with no proper sewage system at the facility, prisoners are forced to use plastic bags and bottles as their washroom. There is also no basic medical care; inmates only see a doctor if they have died.

4. Rikers Island Prison, USA

Made up of 10 separate jails which house men, women and youth, Rikers Island Prison has a reputation for excessive violence, corruption and gross mistreatment of its inmates, especially those who are mentally ill. In 2008, after the beating death of 18-year-old Christoper Robinson, it was found that the inmates responsible were part of “The Program,” a secret society run by the prison’s guards to have certain inmates exert violence toward other prisoners as a way to maintain order. Rikers also has one of America’s highest rates of solitary confinement, cells that are used so often that the Department of Corrections has recently built 1,000 more special isolation units for adolescents and those with mental illnesses.

3. United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), USA

Also known as ADX Florence, Florence ADMAX, Supermax, or the Alcatraz of the Rockies, this is the most maximum-security prison in the United States. Built in 1994, this facility houses some of the world’d most dangerous criminals, including Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Ramzi Yousef (reponsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), and Zacarias Moussaoui (involved in the 9/11 attacks). Inmates at this facility spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in their 7-by-12 foot concrete cells that contain unmovable concrete furniture such as a stool, desk and bed that is topped with a thin mattress. Cell windows measure only three feet in height and four inches in width, and meals are served through small slots in the metal doors. When prisoners are allowed out of their cells during the one hour recreation period, they wear several restraints and are escorted by multiple guards to a small outdoor cage. The prison was once described by former warden Robert Hood as “a clean version of hell.”

2. Camp 22, North Korea

Hoeryong Concentration Camp, also known as Camp 22, has been in operation since 1965, but was kept secret for decades until satellite photography of the facility became public. Camp 22 is one of an estimated 30 concentration camps in North Korea. It is said to hold over 50,000 men, women and children, since a person’s entire family can be arrested for their crime. Prisoners are malnourished, tortured and subjected to working in fields and mines for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.


1. Gitarama Prison, Rwanda

The most crowded prison in the world, Gitarama is home to over 7,000 prisoners in a facility that was built to hold only 400. Most of the inmates are suspects of the Rwandan genocide that took place in 1994. Given the extreme overcrowding, these men and women are forced to stand barefoot on the filthy ground for all hours of the day, causing their feet to rot. Many eventually require amputations, but with only one full-time doctor dedicated to the prison, most prisoners are unable to receive the treatment they need, resulting in half a dozen deaths each day.