San Quentin State Prison | History & Facts

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5 Worst Prisons in History

Worst Prisons in History: More than 10.35 million people in the world today are locked inside prisons. More than a fifth of the incarcerated population,  around 2.2 million, reside in the US! Whether they appear on late-night television or in the latest documentary about a broken justice system, prisons make for some of the most intriguing places in our sensationalist world. 

Their blend of horrifying conditions, grim courtyards, and terrifying characters provoke and frighten in equal measure. The dark and dangerous world of penitentiaries seems fascinating from a distance. Still, the reality of prison life is often far from it. It is a brutal, vile, and vulgar form of life. Over the ages, it has turned into an unjust hierarchy that seeks not to improve the prisoners’ lives but to suppress them. Plenty of prisons in history will make the hair on your neck stand. Here we boil it down to the five worst prisons in history:

1. Chateau d’If, France

Chateau-dIf-France (Worst Prison in History)
Chateau d’If, France

Chateau d’If, France We start with a fortress-turned prison on the Frioul archipelago, located about a mile off the shore of Marseille, France. Let’s get the name out of the way first. The chateau is a three-story building with three towers and mounted guns. Ile de is the smallest island in the archipelago, on which this fortress stands.

The fortress never underwent a siege that tested its limits. According to engineers, the fortifications were built roughly and would not sustain a barrage of projectiles in the case of an attack.  Its main value was as a military deterrent. The fortress made for a great prison location, naturally. So, it was eventually converted into one. Its unique location made it impossible for prisoners to escape.

The water was already a nuisance, but the fast-moving currents further discouraged any escape attempts. The rambunctious state of the sea made the mile-long swim difficult, even for the most experienced swimmers. And who wouldn’t want to escape that prison? It was the dumping ground for murderers, rapists, and the worst criminals of  France.

The most important political and religious prisoners were also sent there to ensure that they had no meaningful contact with the outside world. Most of these – almost 3,500 – were Huguenots. Physical, sexual, and mental abuse was a commonplace activity. The guards would tie prisoners to chains for days on end. Sometimes, the tied prisoners would die or go insane from exhaustion.

The Duke of Orleans, Louis Philippe II or Philippe Egalite, Honore  Gabriel Riqueti – who served as a leader in the early stages of the French Revolution, and Gaston Cremieux, the leader of the Paris Commune, were inmates of the prison at one point or another.  Gaston Cremieux was executed in the same prison. Another important historical note is the existence of a mysterious individual, known as the Man in the Iron Mask.

It famously serves as the setting of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo,  in which Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, attempts a successful escape from prison. Owing to its notorious reputation, its historical value, and its appearance in a famous novel, it was shut down at the end of the 19th century. Now, it serves as a museum and, like Alcatraz in the US, is a tourist attraction. The French Ministry of Culture has declared it a  “monument historic,” and now, plenty of visitors arrive every year to discover one of  the most notorious prisons in French history

2. Devil’s Island, French Guiana

Devil's Island, French Guiana

Devil’s Island, French Guiana Another French prison, but this one was a penal colony located in South America. The Devil’s  Island facility was quite possibly the worst penal colony in colonial history. Operating for almost a hundred years, from the 1850s to the 1950s, the prisons in the Salvation Islands of French Guiana were a literal hellhole. Located on several small islands called Ile de Salut, these prisons were opened by Napoleon III and continually received prisoners from St-Laurent-du-Maroni,  the main French penal colony.

The main reception center was known as Ile Royale.  The general population of the prison resided here. It was a place of moderate freedoms, primarily because escaping from it was next to impossible. Saint-Joseph Island served as the reclusion, where prisoners were sent for solitary confinement and torture.

The  Devil’s Island, known as Ile u Diable in French, was the prison reserved for political prisoners,  but it also housed murderers and thieves. It served as the go-to location for French political prisoners in exile. Its most famous inmates include Captain Alfred  Dreyfus, who was wrongly accused of selling state secrets to the Germans, and the infamous Papillon. 

The Dreyfus scandal was a big deal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an expose of corruption and anti-Semitism in French ranks. The population of not just France – but all of Europe – skyrocketed in the 17th and 18th centuries. With so much to focus on,  prisons were the least of anyone’s worries. They went from enforcing labor-based sentences to punishment through imprisonment. As a result, recidivism rose to 75 percent. To deal with the consistent influx of new and old prisoners, Napoleon ordered the construction of these penal colonies in French Guiana.

The overwhelming brutal environment of the prison is best understood by a simple statistic. The majority of the 80,000 prisoners that were sent to the penal colony never returned. By rough estimates, only 2,000 made it back alive. Disease, starvation, and torture-related deaths were common, and with a death rate of  75 percent, survival was but a miracle. It was nicknamed the “Green Hell.” The prison closed down in 1953. Today, it serves as a tour site, attracting almost 50,000 visitors every year.

3. Camp Sumter, US

Camp Sumter, US
Camp Sumter, US

Camp Sumter, US The United States has a bad reputation when it comes to penitentiaries. Whether it be the infamous Alcatraz that has housed the most notorious criminals in the country’s history or the Ohio State Reformatory,  which serves as the backdrop of the feel-good Shawshank Redemption but was really one of the most inhumane prisons of the 20th century, the US has had no shortage of bad prisons.

It is difficult to narrow down the absolute worst, but if one has to, it would have to be the  Camp Sumter facility at Andersonville, Georgia. The largest Confederate prison during the American Civil War was built in 1864 with the specific purpose of housing Union soldiers. A prisoner-of-war camp for the final fourteen months of the war, this facility in Georgia had almost 45,000 prisoners. Out of those 45,000,  almost 13,000 died by the time it closed down. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, and no shortage of disease – especially dysentery, diarrhea, and scurvy – meant that the camp suffered almost 1,000 casualties every month. To get an idea of the overcrowding, one must realize that 400 prisoners of war. came to the prison every day.

The prison had a maximum capacity of 10,000 and only one water source. So, after the first couple of months,  the facility was egregiously overpopulated. The prison had sentry posts and fences to discourage escape attempts, but plenty tried to escape. The guards were ordered to shoot anyone that crossed the fence. With the South’s declining economic conditions, the situation worsened by the day as the prisoners did not have enough food and water. Therefore, escape was a very viable option. According to Confederate records, 

almost 351 prisoners managed to escape,  with many being recaptured. Around 32 people returned to Union allies, while others returned to civilian lives without notifying the military. After a while, the Confederates started to move prisoners to other facilities. Andersonville was finally liberated in May of 1865. Henry Wirz, the commandant of Camp Sumter’s inner stockade, was tried and hanged on multiple charges of war crimes. 

4. Pitesti Prison, Romania

Pitesti Prison, Romania
Pitesti Prison, Romania

Pitesti Prison, Romania The Pitesti Prison was notorious for its torture techniques and inhumane brutality. The penal facility in Communist Romania is remembered today for its experiments to re-educate the youth.  It started as a detention facility and housed prisoners guilty of misdemeanors in the beginning.

Romania adhered to a doctrine of state atheism, like others in the Eastern bloc at the time. The goal of re-education was to purge the religious ideas of the hardline Christian seminaries and the political ideals of the fascist Iron Guard supporters. The experiment also included members of the Zionist community of Romania. 

The idea was to make the prisoners disavow their religious and political convictions and adopt the state’s narrative. It is, by far, the largest brainwashing experiment conducted by the Communist Bloc. Estimates of the prisoner count vary greatly. Some put it around 780 to 1,000. Others say it was around 5,000. Similarly, the death count is contested as well. Some put the deaths at around 20, while others claim the number is much higher – around 200. Attempts to re-educate prisoners also happened at a prison in  Suceava and the Gherla Prison.

The experiments in Suceava were quite similar in intensity,  whereas those in Gherla were less intensive. There were various stages of re-education,  all involving varying degrees of psychological punishment and physical torture. In the first stage, also known as “external unmasking,” interrogation was interspersed with torture. By using barbaric methods, the inmates were made to confess to every nook and cranny of their spiritual and ideological beings. Then came the “internal masking,” in which prisoners were tortured and made to reveal the names of the most lenient torturers and interrogators.

The third step, “the public moral unmasking,” involved denouncing all their beliefs and loyalties. The prisoners were to recount that they were vile and evil, forcing them to blaspheme their most sacred religious tenants. Punishments included defecating in each other’s mouths and consuming urine and feces. By associating these acts with their Christian counterparts the experiment sought to force the prisoners to renounce them.

The experiments continued from 1949 to 1951. Eugen Turcanu, who led the experiment,  and his accomplices were later executed. Urga, Mongolian Mongolian prisons are dreaded – even today. People get long sentences for minor crimes. Those awaiting trials are kept in detention centers that are far worse than prisons in some countries. If someone is unfortunate enough to be convicted, he finds themselves in prisons far worse than anywhere else on the planet.

However, the worst prison in the country’s history has to be the prison of Urga, now known as Ulaanbaatar. Around two-thirds of all prisoners in this facility were imprisoned without due process. Nevertheless, the brutal reality of life in this prison became the stuff of legends. Inmates were enclosed in wooden coffins that were kept in dark dungeons. 

5. Box of Death

Box of Death
Box of Death

Box of Death Some people have even dubbed the horrifying  wooden box the “Box of Death.” Rightly so. These “cells” were so small that prisoners could neither sit nor lie down properly. Realizing that they were handcuffed as well, one could claim that convenience was not the chief consideration for the authorities.

The prisoners received enough rations to keep them alive, which were passed to them via a 6-inch hole.  After every two or three weeks, their waste was washed and discarded. The temperature in the region drops below zero, so it was common for some inmates to freeze to death every winter. Four feet long and half a foot high, these boxes were known as “coffin prisons.” Prisoners who were awaiting execution were also kept here. 

However, most of these condemned souls died in the boxes, days before their scheduled execution. The stay at the Box of Death lasted a short period for people who had committed lesser crimes. 

The prisoners whose crimes were more heinous would spend their entire sentence in the coffin. The majority of prisoners in this jail were  Chinese. The Chinese had invaded the land but had only managed to take over a few areas. After some reports by Amnesty International, the conditions in Mongolian prisons got better.  However, according to the National Human Rights Commission, they are still quite horrifying.  Prisons may make for gritty television, but the reality of life inside prison is far too sobering to wish upon even your worst enemy. 


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