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The Worst Prisons in the State of California

California has one of the largest prison populations in the United States, with over 115,000 inmates spread across 35 state prisons as of 2022. While some of these facilities are modern and humane, others are antiquated and have long histories of violence, gang activity, and human rights violations. Here is an overview of some of the worst prisons in California based on safety, living conditions, and inmate treatment.

Pelican Bay State Prison

Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Crescent City near the Oregon border, opened in 1989 and has a reputation as one of California’s most secure and isolated prisons. The facility houses over 2,000 maximum security inmates, many of whom are in long-term solitary confinement.

Security Housing Unit (SHU)

Pelican Bay is best known for its notorious Security Housing Unit (SHU) which keeps inmates in windowless, soundproof cells for 22-23 hours per day with no phone calls, visitors or communal activities. Inmates can spend years or even decades in these conditions which human rights groups have called cruel, inhumane and a form of torture.

Gang Violence

The harsh conditions of isolation have led to increased gang activity within Pelican Bay. The prison is home to leaders of prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood who use intimidation and violence to control other inmates. Stabbings, attacks and murder within the prison are common.

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San Quentin State Prison

Built in 1852, San Quentin is California’s oldest prison. The sprawling complex near San Francisco holds over 4,000 inmates including the state’s only death row for men.

Death Row

San Quentin’s death row is home to over 700 condemned men. The facility’s execution chamber is unused after executions were halted in 2006, but California voters passed a proposition in 2016 to speed up executions. San Quentin’s death row has a long history of violence. Multiple executions were botched in the 1900s and 1940s.


In 2005, San Quentin housed twice the number of inmates it was designed for, and makeshift dorms were constructed in the prison yard. Overcrowding exacerbated tensions and gang problems at the prison. In 2010, the Supreme Court required California to reduce its prison population, so San Quentin remains over capacity despite improvements.

Folsom State Prison

This notorious prison was built in 1880 near Sacramento and is one of California’s oldest facilities. Folsom is known for its harsh conditions and frequent inmate violence.

Living Conditions

Folsom remains overcrowded today, with some inmates housed in “beds” that are stacked three high. The outdated facility lacks adequate ventilation and plumbing. Temperatures inside cell blocks can exceed 100 degrees in summer. Mental health services are lacking.


Race-based gangs including white supremacists have a strong presence at Folsom and fuel much of the violence. Deadly riots have occurred throughout Folsom’s history. In 1937, an attempt to escape led to a riot and four deaths. In 1968, Black and Hispanic inmates attacked each other, killing one and injuring dozens.

California State Prison, Los Angeles County

This Lancaster prison opened in 1993 and has faced consistent overcrowding problems. With beds for around 5,000 inmates, it has held over 7,000 prisoners who endure cramped, unsafe conditions.

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Health and Safety Issues

The crowded, chaotic environment has resulted in a dangerous facility for both correctional officers and inmates. Some housing units lack proper ventilation while others remain unairconditioned in the hot summers. Assaults occur regularly, and some cell blocks are controlled by prison gangs.

COVID-19 Outbreak

Inadequate measures to control COVID-19 led to outbreaks infecting over half the inmate population by June 2020. Over 750 staff members were also infected. Twenty-five inmates have died of COVID-19 complications as of September 2020.

Notable Incidents at California Prisons

Here is a table summarizing some of the most notorious incidents of violence, unrest, and human rights violations that have occurred within California state prisons over the last several decades:

Aug 2021North Kern State Prison200 inmates refused orders to return to cells. Dozens injured in clashes with guards using pepper spray and non-lethal rounds.
Jul 2020San Quentin State PrisonMajor COVID-19 outbreak infects over 2,200 inmates, killing 28.
Feb 1970Soledad PrisonCorrectional officer shot and killed by prisoner in tower, triggering riot and 11 staff injuries.
Aug 1971San QuentinFailed escape attempt led to 6 dead: George Jackson, 3 inmates and 3 officers.
Oct 1989Pelican Bay State PrisonOpening of controversial Security Housing Unit for long-term isolation of inmates.
Feb 2000California Correctional InstitutionAbout 200 inmates riot, causing $5 million in damage.
Jul 2011Pelican BayHunger strikes begin as inmates protest long-term isolation, sparking larger strikes across CA prisons.
Aug 2009California Institution for MenRiot over crowding leaves 175 inmates injured.
Feb 1970Folsom State PrisonFive correctional officers taken hostage and severely beaten in two day riot.

Frequently Asked Questions About California Prisons

What is the largest prison in California?

Ironwood State Prison is the largest prison in California with a capacity of over 4,000 inmates. The facility opened in 1994 and houses mostly medium security prisoners.

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Does California still use the death penalty?

Yes, California still has the death penalty, but executions have been halted since 2006 after a court ruling. A 2016 ballot measure passed to try to restart executions by shortening the lengthy appeals process. Over 700 inmates are on California’s death rows, the largest in the US.

How many prisons are in California?

There are approximately 35 state prisons across California operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The system houses over 115,000 inmates as of 2022.

What is the Security Housing Unit (SHU)?

The SHU is a controversial solitary confinement facility within Pelican Bay and other state prisons. Inmates are kept in small concrete cells for 22-23 hours per day with no human contact. SHUs face heavy criticism, but proponents argue they are necessary for controlling the most dangerous inmates.

Does overcrowding remain an issue?

Yes, overcrowding is still a major concern, especially as COVID-19 spreads through facilities. Federal court orders led California to reduce its prison population from over 170,000 in 2006 to around 115,000 today. But most prisons contain more inmates than their intended capacity.

Are all California state prisons violent?

No, while some prisons like Pelican Bay and Folsom have frequent violence and unrest due to overcrowding, gangs and poor conditions, others like Ironwood have more modern facilities and less gang activity. But California’s prisons overall struggle with violence, inadequate mental healthcare, and aging infrastructure.

What are the most common offenses among California prisoners?

In 2020, about 30% of inmates in the California state prison system were serving time for violent crimes like homicide, robbery, and assault. Around 20% were convicted of property crimes like burglary, and another 20% for drug offenses. Weapons charges, sex crimes, and DUIs are also common.


While conditions have improved compared to the crisis levels of overcrowding in the early 2000s, California’s prison system remains under strain and many facilities urgently require upgrades and reforms. Persistent problems of gang influence, lack of rehabilitation programs, inadequate healthcare, and violence continue to plague some institutions more than others.

Prisons like Pelican Bay, San Quentin, Folsom, and California State Prison LA County top the list of the worst penitentiaries in the state due to high levels of assault, dominance by prison gangs, overcrowded housing, and dilapidated infrastructure. As California works to further reduce its prison population and rehabilitate inmates, these troubled facilities will require special attention and investment to improve safety, living conditions and access to programs for the thousands of men incarcerated there. With proper reforms, California’s prison system can potentially shift away from merely warehousing inmates and become a vehicle for rehabilitation, skills training, and successful reentry into society.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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