Prisons – there’s no escaping it. If you dump a large number of violent criminals together and offer them no hope and no future, there are bound to be problems. Life behind bars can often be just as brutal as life on the outside – for some offenders, even more so. What’s more, on top of vicious inmates and sadistic guards, prisoners also face the sometimes extreme difficulties of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and bad sanitation.
To deal with their harsh environments, lifetime criminals often have to toughen up and “switch off” even more. From the threat of deadly prison gangs to the fear of being unexpectedly shanked in the shower, life in jail must take its toll on any inmate’s mental state. And as a result, prison counselors have clearly got their work cut out for them. Still, as they say, “It’s a dangerous job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
Read on for the 10 most dangerous prisons in the world.
10. Bang Kwang Central Prison – Nonthaburi Province, Thailand
Nicknamed the “Bangkok Hilton” by foreigners, Bang Kwang Central Prison is a notorious maximum-security facility just outside Bangkok that deals with death-row inmates and serious lifetime offenders. All Bang Kwang prisoners are forced to wear leg irons for their first three months of incarceration – and death row inmates have them permanently welded on.
The prison provides one bowl of vegetable soup with rice a day, with prisoners also allocated cooking facilities and being expected to buy ingredients from the prison canteen. Fresh fruit, insect repellent and ketchup are luxury items. Since May this year, visitors have been banned from bringing prisoners food, clothes and other items.
Bang Kwang is extremely overcrowded and offers nothing in the form of mental stimulation, exercise, creativity or rehabilitation. Inmates are pretty much left to their own devices, and up to 70 percent of them are said to have succumbed to depression. “I see a lot of people who are losing their minds. I see men turn into zombies, literally tuning out and existing in a numb-state. It is a struggle to stay sane here,” said one Canadian inmate.
Human rights organizations have complained about Bang Kwang’s lack of medical care and sanitation and have cited the facility for overcrowding, its reputed use of torture, and its insistence that inmates wear restraints. In 2012, police raided seven zones of the prison and discovered 40,470 baht ($1,318) in cash, pornography, crystal meth, and smuggled mobile phones.
9. Nairobi Prison – Nairobi, Kenya
Nairobi Prison was built in 1911 to house 800 prisoners, but by 2003, the inmate population had already exceeded 3,000. Unsurprisingly, in view of such extreme overcrowding, sanitation, hygiene and general living conditions have been severely affected. Officials don’t even have enough uniforms for all the inmates.
Located in the industrial quarter of Nairobi and described as a “maze of chain-link fences, razor wire and guard towers,” the prison is thought to be one of the most congested in the world. Cells reek of sweat, filth and human waste, and the stench of raw sewage hangs in the air.
“This is the worst prison I have ever seen. Everything about this place is bad, including the treatment from the wardens,” said Nigerian inmate Colin Alexander. “We are surviving by the grace of God – I don’t think any human being can survive here.”
In a prison where simply staying physically and mentally healthy is a struggle, reports continue to circulate about brutality and torture. “The story is the same everywhere in our jails,” explains frustrated prison official David Mwania. “Congestion because of delays in court cases, leading to more and more congestion. There is a lack of funds to provide for basic essentials for inmates. Simply, the system cannot cope anymore.”
8. Rikers Island – New York, USA
New York’s Rikers Island gained a reputation for violence in the 1990s, when stabbings, murders and other attacks (on fellow inmates and guards) were common and unlikely to result in any punishment. Inmates have described the prison as rougher than the roughest New York streets.
The list of documented attacks and guard-related assault cover-ups in Rikers is huge. Corrupt guards have even used inmates as “enforcers.” In 2008, an inquiry was launched following rumors of an inmate fight club instigated by prison guards. In October that year, 18-year-old prisoner Christopher Robinson was beaten to death by teenage inmates while guards “looked the other way.” Subsequently, three guards and three inmates faced charges. In the end, two of the guards were charged and imprisoned. The other guard is awaiting sentence, and in total, 12 inmates were implicated in the scandal.
In response to the violence, prison officials clamped down in 2009 by searching cells daily for homemade weapons, using SWAT teams to break up prison riots and transforming Rikers into one of the strictest prisons in the country. That year, annual stabbings fell from 1,000 to around 70.
Still, graphic images of inmate injuries released in 2012 suggest that violence remains a problem in Rikers. While the Correctional Department insists the improvements are real and lasting, insiders suggest that violence is once again escalating in one of America’s most notorious prisons.
Well-known inmates in Rikers include John Lennon’s murderer Mark Chapman, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and rappers Tupac Shakur, Lil Wayne and Foxy Brown.
7. Black Beach – Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Black Beach is a sinisterly named internment facility in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea that is synonymous with rat infestations, inmate overcrowding, malnutrition, sadistic guards and brutality. It was not unheard of for prisoners to die from chronic disease or even disappear completely in this prison, which is situated on the volcanic island of Bioko.
Although Black Beach’s infamous old buildings were replaced five years ago and the facility now boasts a hospital wing and pharmacy, prisoners are still shackled for up to 12 hours a day, as they shuffle past landings covered with wire to prevent suicides, in constant fear of torture and beatings.
In 2008, a special reporter for the UN expressed concerns that torture was frequently used to secure convictions in Equatorial Guinea and that corporal punishment was used in prisons like Black Beach. Prisoners have reportedly died following prolonged beatings, and there are also indications that political prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for as long as four years.
Black Beach is notorious for its lack of human rights and offers little protection for inmates. A prisoner can expect hardly any contact with the outside world, as access to lawyers is rare and families are not even allowed to visit their incarcerated loved ones.
6. Petak Island prison – White Lake, Russia
Remote Russian prison OE-256/5, commonly known as Petak, is specially designed to hold the country’s most dangerous prisoners. Like Alcatraz, Petak is isolated by water, and the White Lake area that surrounds the prison is said to be one of the most beautiful parts of Russia – a stark contrast to the grim reality of life inside.
Yet as dangerous as the prisoners here are, they don’t have to fear much violence from one other, as they barely meet their fellow inmates. Prisoners in Petak are restricted to their cells, which they share with one cell mate for up to 22 hours and 30 minutes a day. They spend the remaining time in a cage, where they have been said to “pace like predatory animals.” And in such states of isolation, prisoners must contend with some of the harshest conditions of any prison in the world.
“There are no lavatories, no proper washing facilities and you spend your whole life in a cell,” said 39-year-old inmate Valery in a 2004 interview with The Daily Telegraph. “When I came here I told my wife to get a divorce. She cried a little and we’ve never seen each other since.”
You can’t even imagine the psychological effect Petak must have on its prisoners – caged up all day and surrounded by freezing cold water and snow. “This place destroys people. The first nine months or so they spend adapting. After three or four years their personalities begin to deteriorate,” says prison psychologist Svetlana Kiselyova. “There is no way anyone can spend 25 years in a place like this without being psychologically destroyed. The homosexuals are the ones who come off best – at least they are not starved of physical and emotional contact.”
5. San Juan de Lurigancho – Lima, Peru
Located in Lima, Peru, San Juan de Lurigancho is often referred to as the toughest prison in South America – and that’s saying something. Built for 2,500 inmates, the facility now houses around 7,000 prisoners within its dilapidated walls. But inside, the regime seems surprisingly relaxed.
Supposedly, banned cell phones are hired out and many inmates have established enterprises in Lurigancho’s “market,” selling everything from fruit and vegetables to clothes, drugs, and DVDs. Cock fighting is also common in the prison. So too are visiting prostitutes, who the inmates refer to as “nurses.” One prisoner described the women as “a social service,” saying that the place would “explode without them.”
Prisoners aren’t segregated from one another – no matter what their crime – and they are allowed to freely wander the entire facility. Unsurprisingly, there have been shocking reports of violence and even murders in the prison, including one incident involving a Dutch inmate who killed his Peruvian girlfriend and buried her under his cell.
And despite the seemingly lax state of control, the government has been known to react indiscriminately. In 1986, when riots broke out in Lurigancho and two other Peruvian prisons, the authorities responded with extreme violence, killing 90 Lurigancho inmates in the process.
4. Gldani Prison – Tbilisi, Georgia
In September 2012, Georgia was rocked by revealing videos filmed in Gldani #8 prison showing the savage treatment of inmates by prison guards, which included rape and violent sexual assault. The country’s zero tolerance approach may have left it with one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, but Georgia also boasts Europe’s highest rate of incarceration, with an acquittal rate lower than 0.1%. As a result, many Georgian prisons are overcrowded, and prisoners face epidemics like tuberculosis.
The emerging Gldani video evidence immediately focused attention on Georgia’s prison system – and its government. Such abuse highlights the cost behind Georgia’s rapid transformation from a crime-racked state to the supposedly peaceful and dynamic nation it is today. The recent revelations may well have simply confirmed what people already suspected, but they still cost Georgia’s penitentiary minister her job and led to the suspension of all prison guards – who were replaced by police in the interim.
While a corruption-free police force may be one of Georgia’s greatest achievements, concerns still linger over their accountability when it comes to dealing with the inmates of Gldani.
3. Gitarama Central Prison – Gitarama, Rwanda
Gitarama Central Prison has been described as hell on earth. The LA Times once said: “There is no space remaining in hell today. The doomed already fill it. They live, sleep, eat, rot and die squeezed together four men per square yard in the roofless brick box that is Gitarama Prison.” Chillingly, this echoes the poster of George Romero’s horror movie Dawn of the Dead.
The prison was designed to house 400 people, but in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, the inmate population rose to nearly 7,000 by the mid 1990s. Continuing the zombie theme, prisoners have been described as “left for dead,” and they can wait in “purgatory” for as long as 16 years without ever receiving a trial date. It’s even been claimed that some inmates resorted to eating one another’s flesh out of sheer desperation.
In the extremely cramped conditions, prisoners have been described as standing together “as if one organism under the sun, under the rain, choking on the smoke of cooking fires, amid dysentery and despair.” And at one stage, without any shoes to protect them in their squalid surroundings, inmates frequently suffered rotting feet caused by gangrene.
2. El Rodeo – Guatire, Venezuela
Under the presidency of Hugo Chávez, soaring crime rates and overcrowded prisons have all but overrun Venezuela. Last year, the country’s prison population soared to 50,000 – with three fifths of inmates still awaiting sentencing. Chávez himself has described the Venezuelan prison system as “the gateway to the fifth circle of hell.” Gun- and grenade-wielding inmates are a common sight in prisons like La Planta in Caracas. However, it’s El Rodeo Prison just outside Caracas that has drawn the most attention in recent times.
On June 12, 2011, a visitor day at El Rodeo erupted into one of the Venezuelan prison system’s most notorious bloodbaths. When Venezuela’s National Guard was sent in to control a shootout between rival gangs in Rodeo Unit I that had already seen 27 people killed, they found machine guns, assault rifles and grenades. The dangerous discovery led them to abandon an assault on the prison’s second unit, deciding instead to draw inmates out with tear gas. Incredibly, some Rodeo II inmates managed to last an entire month under siege, surviving on rainwater and confectionery.
1. Tadmor Military Prison – Palmyra, Syria
Tadmor Military Prison is considered one of the most oppressive prisons in the world, with Amnesty International stating that every aspect of it was designed to dehumanize its inhabitants. “The level of brutality endured by prisoners in this prison is shocking,” added the human rights organization. But Tadmor became even more notorious in June 1980, when President Hafez al-Assad reportedly ordered soldiers to “kill every prisoner in sight” in retaliation for an attack on his life made by the Muslim Brotherhood the day before.
The jail housed hundreds of supporters of the Muslin Brotherhood, and some say as many as 800 inmates were indiscriminately killed in the attack – with other estimates suggesting the number could be as high as 2,400. The clean-up following the massacre reportedly took two weeks.
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as President of Syria in 2001, Tadmor Prison was closed and some prisoners were granted amnesty. Optimistically, a lot of people probably thought that times were changing. However, in 2011, Tadmor was reopened to once again house opponents of the Assad regime involved with Syria’s Arab Spring uprising. Bashar’s reign has been described as no less brutal than his father’s. “The entire country really is Tadmor now,” said author and ex-Tadmor prisoner Dr. Bara Sarraj, ominously describing the situation in Syria.
Bonus: Camp 22 (Hoeryong Concentration Camp) – North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Not a lot is known about North Korea’s notorious Hoeryong Concentration Camp, commonly referred to as Camp 22. Isolated from the outside world, it’s believed to be a lifelong internment facility for political prisoners – but it’s also been referred to as a “death camp” and compared to Auschwitz.
Satellite photographs show a large compound reported to hold up to 50,000 prisoners. Shockingly, it’s claimed that the camp imprisons three generations of a dissident’s family, to ensure the roots of dissent are removed completely. While facts are scarce, insight into the conditions in Camp 22 has surfaced through personal testimonies and defectors, indicating that prisoners are at the complete mercy of their captors.
Reports in the early 2000s suggest that inmates are subjected to human experimentation, including exposure to chemical weapons. There have also been horrific descriptions of gas chambers and poisoned food. And brutality against children and babies has been reported as well, with claims that camp guards have been known to kill newborns in prison by stamping on their necks.
One survivor, Soon Ok Lee, recounted a story in which she was instructed to hand out poisoned cabbage to a group of female prisoners. The women unsuspectingly ate the cabbage and suddenly started vomiting blood and died.
According to reports, Camp 22 closed in mid-2012, following the defection of its warden to neighboring China. However, these claims cannot be verified, and some have suggested that the camp is still operational.