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Worst Prisons in the United States

The United States has some of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with over 2 million people currently behind bars in state and federal prisons. While the goal of the corrections system is ostensibly rehabilitation, many US prisons are notorious for inhumane conditions, violence, and mistreatment of inmates. Here is an examination of some of the worst prisons in America today.

ADX Florence (Colorado)

ADX Florence, also known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” is a federal supermax prison located in Fremont County, Colorado. It houses some of the most dangerous inmates in the federal system.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in cramped cells with no windows
  • Little communication or stimulus is allowed, which often leads to severe psychological effects
  • Physical abuse by guards has been reported
  • Lack of educational, vocational or rehabilitative programs for prisoners

ADX Florence houses infamous criminals like drug lord El Chapo, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. The harsh, isolated conditions have been criticized by many as inhumane.

Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola)

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, is the largest maximum security prison in the US. Located on an 18,000 acre plantation, the prison has a reputation for violence, corruption and despair.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Inmates are subjected to back-breaking manual labor in the fields under armed guard supervision
  • Corruption and bribery are rampant, with guards smuggling contraband to inmates
  • Rape, assault and murder were commonplace until reforms began in the 1990s
  • Up to 95% of inmates die while incarcerated due to dire conditions
  • 80% of inmates are Black, and many see the prison as a form of modern day slavery

The infamous prison was profiled in the award-winning documentary The Farm: Angola USA (1998) for the brutal conditions endured by those incarcerated. Reforms have improved conditions, but problems persist.

Rikers Island (New York)

Located on an island in the East River between Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, Rikers Island is home to New York City’s largest jail complex. The facilities house about 10,000 inmates daily.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Documented culture of pervasive violence amongst inmates
  • Excessive use of solitary confinement, especially for mentally ill inmates
  • Unprofessional and violent behavior by corrections officers
  • Overcrowding, decaying facilities and inhumane conditions
  • Lack of adequate medical care leading to deaths
  • 77% of inmates have not been convicted and are awaiting trial
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Multiple cases of corruption, abuse and violation of inmates’ rights have given Rikers Island a reputation as a dangerous, dysfunctional institution in need of major reform. Plans are underway to close the jail complex by 2027.

Ely State Prison (Nevada)

Located in remote White Pine County, Nevada, Ely State Prison (ESP) is the state’s primary maximum security facility. The prison has developed a reputation for inmate-on-inmate violence.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Severe overcrowding leading to stressful, volatile conditions
  • Understaffing of guards to supervise prisoners
  • Prisoner-constructed weapons frequently confiscated
  • Recreation time sparsely allowed due to rival gang violence
  • Reports of organized “gladiator fights” amongst inmates with gambling
  • Isolation cells have been described as “dungeons” with frigid temperatures and strip searches

A correctional officer was murdered by an inmate at ESP in 2016 amidst the dangerous conditions. Nevada’s DOC has tried implementing reforms, but the prison remains infamous for its gladiator-like mentality amongst inmates.

Pelican Bay State Prison (California)

Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Crescent City, CA, opened in 1989. It was originally designed for inmates classified as the highest security risks.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Nearly half of inmates are in solitary confinement at the prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU)
  • Strict isolation, windowless cells, and deprivation of stimuli in the SHU
  • Allegations of gangs controlling prison yards and threatening other inmates
  • High profile hunger strikes protesting conditions led to modest reforms
  • Still considered a “sterile” and dehumanizing environment by critics

Pelican Bay has been cited by human rights groups for extensive use of solitary confinement practices that are psychologically damaging to inmates. The stark, isolated conditions continue even after some reforms were implemented.

San Quentin State Prison (California)

San Quentin State Prison, located north of San Francisco near the San Rafael coast, is California’s oldest prison. It features the state’s only death row for men and its only execution chamber.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Severe overcrowding has overwhelmed aging facilities
  • Understaffing contributes to increased inmate violence
  • Frequent lockdowns, limiting inmate privileges and movement
  • Sparse work & education opportunities for prisoner rehabilitation
  • Massive healthcare crisis with access and quality issues
  • Location on prime bay-adjacent real estate draws criticism

The prison’s historic architecture and scandalous past have contributed to its notoriety. San Quentin is in need of extensive upgrades to its rehabilitation and healthcare services for inmates if it remains open.

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women (Alabama)

Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women was built in 1942 and named for a social reformer. However, allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of inmates have painted a much bleaker picture.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Corrections officers have raped, harassed, and sexually abused inmates for decades
  • Ongoing culture of cruelty, humiliation, and objectification of female inmates
  • Male guards tasked with duties like strip searches despite past abuses
  • Overcrowding, poor medical care, excessive use of segregation
  • Federal intervention ordered in 2020 due to “barbaric” conditions

Julia Tutwiler has been called the “most dangerous prison for women” in America. Reforms have been slowly implemented, but systemic problems with the treatment of women persist.

Orleans Parish Prison (Louisiana)

The Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in New Orleans has long been plagued by violence, mismanagement and decaying facilities. Many inmates are housed in temporary buildings post-Hurricane Katrina.

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Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Regular inmate-on-inmate violence, made worse by lack of supervision
  • Severely overcrowded and understaffed, especially with medical personnel
  • Harsh temperatures in facilities that often lack cooling in summer
  • Long-term use of temporary buildings without proper maintenance
  • Misappropriation of funding and lack of financial transparency

Following exposes and lawsuits surrounding abusive conditions, city officials pledged major reforms. But OPP is still considered dangerously overcrowded and underserved.

Attica Correctional Facility (New York)

The Attica Correctional Facility, located in western New York, is notorious for its 1971 prison uprising that resulted in 43 deaths. But problematic conditions have persisted here.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Long-term solitary confinement in isolated Special Housing Units (SHU)
  • Harassment and brutality by guards against prisoners
  • Broken windows, faulty plumbing, poor ventilation, and extreme temperatures
  • Inadequate healthcare and mental health services
  • High proportion of inmates with mental illness in isolated conditions

While improvements have been made, problems with healthcare, isolation, and inmate abuse have remained entrenched at Attica, even after the deadly 1971 uprising shone a spotlight on conditions.

Cummins Unit (Arkansas)

Cummins Unit is a maximum security Arkansas state prison with a history of chronic problems since its opening in 1902. It remains one of the worst in the US today.

Why It’s One of the Wortest

  • The prison is infamously nicknamed “The Farm” due to rampant inmate abuse and mistreatment
  • Punitive overcrowding, inadequate facilities, poor sanitation and medical care
  • Corruption and criminal enterprise run rampant amongst guards and inmates
  • Solitary confinement used excessively, especially on mentally ill inmates
  • Gang violence, rape, and assaults are commonplace in the general population

For over a century, Cummins has been notorious for abusive guards, bleak living conditions, and its dangerous, deadly inmate population. Important reforms are still needed.

Parchman Farm (Mississippi)

Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, is a notorious maximum security prison. Its 20th century history contains shocking abuses and deadly unrest.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Originally modeled after slave plantations and convict leasing systems in the Jim Crow South
  • Inmates were abused, tortured and used for forced labor
  • Modern era unrest includes dozens of deaths since late 2019
  • Ongoing problems with violence, gangs, contraband and deteriorating facilities
  • Critics condemn harsh sentencing laws that swell Parchman’s population

Parchman’s legacy of racism, brutality and despair makes it one of the worst prisons in the country, especially for Black inmates. Demands for reform have intensified in recent years.

Waupun Correctional Institution (Wisconsin)

Waupun Correctional Institution is a maximum security prison with one of the highest rates of segregation practices in the United States.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • Over 50% of inmates are held in solitary confinement, seen as excessive
  • Many are isolated for years, leading to psychological damage
  • Cells are windowless and inmates have almost no interactions
  • Regular abuse and “cell extractions” by prison guards
  • High suicide attempts, self-harm, and mental crises related to isolation

Watchdog groups categorize Waupun as engaging in torture for its extensive reliance on solitary confinement. Claims of mistreatment and racism against prisoners are also common.

Kirkland Correctional Institution (South Carolina)

Kirkland Correctional Institution houses maximum security inmates with behavioral issues in South Carolina. But problems at the severely overcrowded prison go far beyond that.

Why It’s One of the Worst

  • 250% occupancy with 2,000 inmates jampacked into space for 800
  • One toilet shared by over 50 inmates in crowded communal sleeping areas
  • Vermin infestations, black mold, and crumbling infrastructure
  • Little recreation time and confinement to hot, overcrowded units
  • Staff shortages stretch prison resources to the breaking point
  • Gang violence and inmate injuries common due to conditions
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Kirkland exemplifies the dangers of overcrowding in prisons. South Carolina must focus on reducing populations and upgrading facilities at Kirkland and other institutions.

Here are 10 of the worst prisons in the United States today:

PrisonLocationDate OpenedNotorious For
ADX FlorenceColorado1994Solitary confinement, lack of stimulation
Louisiana State PenitentiaryAngola, LA1901Forced labor, corruption
Rikers IslandNew York City1932Violence, abuse by guards
Ely State PrisonEly, NV1989Gladiator fights, inmate-on-inmate violence
Pelican Bay State PrisonCrescent City, CA1989Long-term solitary confinement
San Quentin State PrisonSan Rafael, CA1852Overcrowding, poor healthcare
Julia Tutwiler Prison for WomenWetumpka, AL1942Sexual abuse and harassment
Orleans Parish PrisonNew Orleans, LA1889Violence, poor conditions
Attica Correctional FacilityAttica, NY1931Deadly 1971 uprising, ongoing abuse
Cummins UnitGrady, AK1902Chronic abuse and mistreatment

Why Are These Considered the Worst?

These prisons have gained their notorious reputations through years of documented civil rights abuses, inhumane conditions, inmate violence, insufficient rehabilitation efforts, and scandalous incidents.

Factors that characterize America’s worst prisons include:

  • Overcrowding – Too many prisoners crammed into decaying, undersupplied facilities
  • Abuse by guards – Physical/sexual assault, corruption, harassment, racism
  • Solitary confinement – Excessive isolation that causes psychological damage
  • Gang violence – Lack of supervision allows inmate-on-inmate assaults, extortion, rape
  • Poor healthcare – Inadequate care, staff shortages, neglect, preventable deaths
  • Forced labor – Louisiana’s Angola specifically known for backbreaking work in fields
  • Lack of rehabilitation – Little education or vocational training to reduce recidivism
  • Damaging publicity – Media exposures, lawsuits, documentaries shed light on conditions

While conditions have improved at some previously notorious prisons, these facilities still generally fail to humanely house inmates and prepare them for re-entry into society.

What Can Be Done to Improve Prisons in the US?

Many human rights advocates argue that issues with America’s prison system are inherent to incarceration itself. But others push for reforms that improve outcomes for the imprisoned and correctional officers alike. Potential changes include:

  • Reducing overcrowding through probation, parole, diversion programs, and reclassification of some crimes
  • Increased training and supervision of guards to reduce abuse incidents
  • Independent oversight committees to hold prisons accountable for conditions
  • More access to educational, vocational and therapeutic programming for prisoners’ rehabilitation
  • Expansion of mental health resources and alternatives to solitary confinement
  • Improved healthcare, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, and nutrition standards
  • Incentivizing good behavior over punitive practices for most inmates
  • More public funding to upgrade aging infrastructure and add staff

With over 2 million behind bars and billions spent annually on corrections, reforming prisons should be considered an urgent public policy priority. Improving conditions can help the incarcerated successfully re-enter society after serving their sentences.

Conclusion

America’s prisons have no shortage of problems that need addressing, from human rights violations to crumbling infrastructure. But the worst prisons take these issues to the extreme. Whether it be pervasive violence, deadly riots, or inhumane isolation, the most notorious prisons in the United States urgently need reform.

Public exposure, legal interventions, and independent oversight have helped curb some of the worst abuses at prisons like Angola, Attica, and Julia Tutwiler. But systemic problems embedded in much of the corrections system remain. Mass incarceration itself needs rethinking. In the meantime, pushing for greater funding, alternative sentencing, and upgraded facilities can help transform even the worst prisons from bleak warehouses of misery into institutions that emphasize rehabilitation, public safety, and humane standards. With over 2 million behind bars, improving conditions for the incarcerated and correctional staff alike remains an urgent policy issue.

Prison Inside Team

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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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