A Brief History
On January 5, 1895, French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason for allegedly having passed along secret information to the Germans in what famously became known as the Dreyfus Affair and was sentenced to live at the dreaded Devil’s Island prison in French Guiana. Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and exonerated.
Although closed since 1953, Devil’s Island prison remains the epitome of notoriously miserable prisons and is virtually synonymous with the term “hellhole.” Here we list 10 infamous prisons, places with cruel reputations that strike fear in the hearts of convicts and disgust in the hearts of reformers. Presumably any prison would be a terrible place, but here we stick to the more famous ones.
10. The Mansfield Reformatory.
The Ohio State Reformatory located in Mansfield was open from 1886 until it was shut down by a federal court in 1990. Obviously, conditions must have been pretty bad for a judge to order such a drastic step. After housing many of Ohio’s worst criminals, Mansfield is said to be one of the most haunted places in the U.S., a reputation that attracts many visitors and researchers each year. Famous for its role as the fictional prison Shawshank in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, this prison has also “starred” in several other movies, television shows and even rock music videos. John Carroll University’s Paranormal Research Group famously visited this former prison in 2014. For more information, please visit their Facebook page.
A maximum security prison in New York, Attica was the scene of perhaps the most famous prison riot in U.S. history when, in 1971, prisoners took over and in the process, about 40 people, including guards, lost their lives. After the riot was put down, the prisoners were brutalized by vengeful guards and police. Built in the 1930s, Attica even had tear gas dispensers mounted on the walls of major areas such as the mess hall, and those dispensers saw use. Notable prisoners include David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Black Panther H. Rap Brown, John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman, and infamous bank robber Willie (“because that’s where the money is”) Sutton.
8. The Bastille.
Built in 1370 as a fortress to defend Paris, it gained a secondary role as a prison in 1417. Like the Tower of London, the Bastille was used to house the most dangerous prisoners, those who threatened the regime. Even before the French Revolution, former prisoners had written about the cruel conditions there, and the Bastille became a symbol of what was wrong with France and the monarchy. In 1789, a seminal moment in the Revolution took place at the Bastille when the public stormed it and freed the prisoners being held there. Although in reality, the conditions for prisoners at the Bastille were actually better than the average at the time, the fortress’s reputation was such that the mobs of revolutionaries largely tore it down. Bastille Day (July 14) remains a major holiday in France. A notable prisoner at the Bastille was the notorious Marquis de Sade.
7. The Lubyanka Building.
The former KGB headquarters in Moscow and prison, the Lubyanka Building was originally built in 1898 as an insurance building. Taken over by the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, it became home to the Cheka, the dreaded secret Soviet police before they evolved into the KGB. The building was jokingly called the “tallest building in Moscow” because prisoners alleged that they could “see Siberia from their cells.” Obviously, this building is where many spies and dissidents stopped off for some “rest and relaxation” (a.k.a. torture) before being executed or shipped off to Siberia. After the dissolution of the KGB, the building is now headquarters to the Russian Border Guard and still serves as a prison, but with a 1990 memorial to those political prisoners once held there.
Although its actual name is the Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bedlam has been in operation as an insane asylum (as psychiatric hospitals used to be called) since 1300, making it the oldest such place in Europe. Before there was scientific understanding of the mental condition of the patients and before the introduction of modern drugs and treatments, the patients (inmates) were often out of control and in a state of uproar, hence the derivation of the term “bedlam” which denotes a state of raucous chaos. Bedlam once held the most violent and disturbed of mental patients, often locking them in chains in their rooms (cells). The hospital moved to its current suburban location in 1930 and operates as a modern facility at this time.
5. Devil’s Island.
Located in remote French Guiana, prisoners of the worst variety were held in the Devil’s Island prison. Perhaps the most graphic account can be found in the 1969 book and the 1973 movie Papillon about a prisoner named Henri who, in lurid detail, recounts the cruelty and privation he experienced and witnessed there. French officials dispute these terrible tales and claim that Henri was actually imprisoned on the mainland. Still, the reputation remains. Devil’s Island prison was in operation from 1852 until 1953.
4. The Tower of London.
Built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952. Part of a complex that includes a royal residence (palace), the Tower was used to house special prisoners of particular interest to the rulers, such as rebels and traitors and those persons close to the throne who fell out of favor. The Tower also stood as a bastion of the monarchy and was a stronghold to control the surrounding area. It also served as a place of execution, both inside and at the nearby Tower Hill. Notable prisoners who were executed there include St. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. World War II saw spies held and executed there as well. Even the crown jewels have found safe keeping in the Tower. Now it is a major tourist attraction with its main residents being black ravens.
Located in a part of Poland that was annexed by Nazi Germany, Auschwitz is perhaps the most famous of the Nazi concentration/extermination camps. Also consisting of 45 satellite camps, it provided slave labor to IG Farben, the chemical company that made the notorious poison Zyklon-B that was used to gas inmates to death. Although Jews were the main targets of the Reich, Auschwitz also was the last stop for thousands of other undesirables such as Gypsies, homosexuals, Polish intellectuals, political dissidents and anyone else the Nazis thought was a threat. Over a million prisoners are believed to have died at Auschwitz, most of them starving to death or executed in the gas chambers.
Although not as horrible as the other prisons listed here, to many Americans Alcatraz is perhaps the most famous. Created as a special high-security prison for the most dangerous of federal prisoners (such as Al Capone), Alcatraz was supposed to be state of the art but actually had substandard living space. Often depicted in American movies and literature, this prison, which is located on a rugged island off San Francisco, is believed to never have been escaped from successfully.
1. The Black Hole of Calcutta.
A small, miserable dungeon where 146 British prisoners were held in 1756 by Indian forces who resisted rule by the British East India Company, the Black Hole of Calcutta is actually located in Fort William, a company defensive stronghold that was captured. The British were locked up in terribly tight quarters and promised no harm would come to them. Crammed in a cell only 14 feet long by 18 feet wide, a hellish night ensued with only about 20 to 25 prisoners still alive the next morning when the cell was opened. The deaths were caused by suffocation, dehydration, heat and from being crushed to death, certainly horrible ways to expire. It was reported that prisoners attempted to bribe the guards to give them larger accommodations, but these efforts were to no avail, perhaps making the Black Hole the most reviled prison ever.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which prisons would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Berne, Emma Carlson. World’s Scariest Prisons. Scholastic Paperback Nonfiction, 2014.
Lock, Joan. Famous Prisons (Crime and Detection). Mason Crest, 2002.
The featured image in this article, Alfred Dreyfus in his room on Devil’s Island in 1898, stereoscopy sold by F. Hamel, Altona-Hamburg…; collection Fritz Lachmund, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
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