The Depths of Despair: 5 Worst Prisons of the 20th Century

Prisons are meant to be correction institutions, but some have become synonymous with brutality, torture, and neglect. From ancient times to the present, there have been prisons that have inflicted unbearable suffering on inmates. Here are the 5 worst prisons in history that showcase the dark side of justice and unimaginable suffering. 

Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia 

A picture of the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia.
Image by: Open Democracy

Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was a secret prison operated by the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1960s. It had an estimated 20,000 prisoners held and tortured. The conditions were brutal, and the fate of most of the prisoners was execution. 

Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison” by David Chandler has many exciting and chilling insights into the history and conditions of Tuol Sleng prison. According to the author, the prison was originally a high school.

The author also discussed that the prisoners were often subjected to brutal torture, including waterboarding, electric shocks, beatings, and psychological tactics.

Alcatraz Island, USA 

The Alcatraz Island prison in San Francisco, USA.
Image by: VOA News

Alcatraz Island is a former San Francisco federal prison from 1934 to 1963. During its time as a prison, it accommodated some of the most infamous criminals in American history, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone.

The prison had a reputation for having strict regulations and difficult living situations. Prisoners had little access to the outside world and sunshine.

The prison also had a reputation for being inescapable because of its remote island location and strict security measures. Due to this, the majority of these attempts failed. 

However, the escape attempt made in 1962 by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers has been the subject of much writing, filmmaking, and television programming.

Carandiru Penitentiary, Brazil 

The exterior of the Carandiru Penitentiary in Brazil.
Image by: Pinterest

The Carandiru Penitentiary, a prison in São Paulo, Brazil, is known for its overcrowded and violent conditions. The prison could house around 4000 inmates, but it was packed with 7000 plus inmates, making the situation worse for prisoners. 

On October 2, 1992, a riot broke out in prison, and the police were called to restore order. The police officers, however, used excessive force, and in the end, 111 inmates were killed. The incident became known as the “Carandiru Massacre” and was a turning point in Brazil’s penal system.

The Carandiru Penitentiary was eventually closed in 2002, and its remaining inmates were transferred to other prisons. The prison site has since been demolished, and a park has been built to commemorate the victims of the massacre. 

Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam 

Overview of the Hanoi Hilton prison in Vietnam.
Image by: Flickr

Located in the capital of Hanoi, the Hanoi Hilton was a prison used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War to detain American prisoners of war (POWs).

The prisoners were subjected to cruelty, including isolation, psychological torment, and physical abuse. One of the exciting insights about Hanoi Hilton is the system of communication the prisoners came up with.

According to the memoir “Faith of My Fathers” by John McCain, a prisoner of the Vietnam War, he and his fellow prisoners communicated by tapping on walls and other means, and this allowed them to maintain a sense of connection and camaraderie even in the face of isolation and torture.

Black Dolphin Prison, Russia Black

Black Dolphin Prison, also referred to as Penal Colony No. 6, is one of Russia’s most notorious prisons, renowned for its strict and oppressive rules. 

The prison was initially constructed in 1745 as a fortress to guard the southern borders of the Russian Empire. It was transformed into a prison in the 20th century and has housed some of Russia’s most dangerous criminals, including terrorists and serial killers. Famous Cannibal Vladimir Nikolayevich Nikolayev is also one of the inmates. 

Black Dolphin is renowned for its strict policies and use of isolation cells, where inmates can spend up to 22 hours per day in solitary confinement. They are only served four portions of soup daily, and they must respond ‘yes, sir’ every time an officer orders something.

To keep its inmates under control, the prison employs a variety of physical restraints and force.


In conclusion, these five jails stand for some of the worst inmate mistreatment in recorded history. Even though some of these prisons are no longer in operation, their cruelty and inhumanity legacy haunts us.

It is critical to remember the crimes against humanity committed in these facilities and to work toward a just and humane method of criminal justice. 

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