Most people only think of prisons when they see them portrayed on television or in the movies, but for those who know from personal experience, there are some prisons you really don’t want to end up at across the country. These prisons have well-deserved reputations as the most notorious prisons in the United States.
ADX, or the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, in Florence, Colorado, is the prison where the most dangerous, violent and famous federal prisoners are sent. It was specifically created to hold society’s worst criminals, those without regard for human life. From its inception, it has been a notorious location. Only around 400 prisoners are housed at ADX, but they include top mafia and gang leaders, drug dealers, former spies and domestic terrorists.
When a prisoner arrives at ADX, they are immediately subjected to one year of solitary confinement, with only one hour a day outside their cell. Only after a year is their behavior evaluated and they are considered for better conditions. The prison was specifically designed to be escape-proof, including by making directions, distance and time of day difficult to ascertain once inside.
Famous criminals include Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the September 11 terrorists, Richard Reid, the so-called “Shoe Bomber”, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston Marathon, and Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent-turned Russian spy.
Probably the most famous, and most infamous prison, in the United States is Alcatraz Prison located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, over a mile from the mainland. Also known as “The Rock”, Alcatraz started out as a lighthouse, then was used for military purposes, before being turned into a prison in 1934. Its military uses included holding prisoners during several wars, including the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War II. The first batch of federal civilian prisoners arrived in 1934. These criminals were sent to The Rock because they were troublesome at other facilities or were deemed high risk. The location in the middle of the San Francisco Bay was ideal because the bay’s waters are extremely cold and fast-moving, making it difficult to reach and nearly if not entirely impossible to escape.
Though many tried, officially no prisoners are recorded as having escaped and survived. At least 36 men attempted to escape; most were caught alive but six were shot dead, two confirmed drowned and five are assumed to have drowned but could in theory have made it to shore. One breakout attempt was so elaborate and all-consuming it became known as the Battle of Alcatraz.
Some of America’s most famous and violent prisoners were held here, which adds to the island’s reputation as a notorious prison. Gangsters such as Al Capone (convicted of tax evasion rather than murder, drug running or bootlegging), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James “Whitey” Bulger all served time at Alcatraz.
The history of Alcatraz doesn’t end with the closing of the prison in 1963. In 1969, it was taken over by Native Americans as part of a larger movement in favor of Native American rights and culture. The occupation lasted nearly two years, and impacts of the occupation including graffiti and burned down buildings are still recognizable today.
According to legend, Native American tribes felt that the island had bad spirits and would sometimes banish individuals to the island for a time. Reports have continued until today about ghosts appearing throughout the island in Civil War attire, sounds of screaming and cannon fire, and other mysterious events such as smoke without any fire coming from different rooms. You can tour Alcatraz these days and learn all about its history and local and national impacts, and look for signs of its notoriety.
United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, generally referred to as Leavenworth, is an older prison within the US Bureau of Prisons system and has developed a reputation for being tough prison, even though its maximum security prison days are behind it as it is now a medium security prison.
Leavenworth is one of the oldest prisons in the federal system, built by military prisoners in the early 1900s. Its first execution was a hanging in 1930, and it housed Japanese Americans who were conscientious objectors during World War II. For many years, Leavenworth was an extremely dangerous prison, housing gang members, violent killers and others deemed too dangerous for other prisons. Five corrections officers were murdered at Leavenworth, the last in 1974, and there have been several prisoner murders and riots, as well as multiple escapes in its long history.
Leavenworth’s design with a large central domed building led to its nickname as the “Big House” which often refers to prisons in general now. Its Panopticon style design allows guards to watch prisoners without them being able to see the guards, leading to a sense of lost privacy and paranoia to ensure the prisoners remain on their best behavior.
In 2005, Leavenworth was downgraded to a medium security prison, but its reputation as a tough prison will always remain, especially with famous inmates including James “Whitey” Bulger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Michael Vick.
This California prison makes the list because it maintains the largest death row inmate population in the US, with more than 700 prisoners on Death Row. It has a large population, with over 3,000 prisoners total. San Quentin houses many gang members, and their rival affiliations often lead to riots and violent outbursts and murders at the prison. The prison has a long history of corruption among those responsible for running and maintain the prison, and previous guards would encourage gang and race violence.
After a 2007 race riot, prisoners from all backgrounds began working together to overcome racial and gang-related prejudices. This, along with better anti-corruption efforts, have helped make San Quentin a safer place to serve time, but it still struggles to manage and assist those prisoners struggling with mental illness.
Scott Peterson, infamous for murdering his pregnant wife, is serving time at San Quentin, and Charles Manson, one of America’s most notorious cult leader and mass murderer, served time here as well.
Sing Sing is a New York state prison, and houses around 2,000 prisoners at any given time. Sing Sing is a dangerous and violent prison, whether you’re a guard or an inmate.
Sing Sing is one of the oldest working prisons in the United States. When it was first opened in 1826, prisoners were forced to be silent, and could expect a whipping or other punishment for talking.
In spite of recent efforts to maintain prisoner morale, the prison has certainly earned its reputation as notorious. Various tortures were sanctioned, including water torture. Over 600 inmates, both men and women, have been executed at Sing Sing before New York State outlawed the practice. Possibly the most famous prisoners, and most famous executions, were of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Over the years, wardens have raised the standards from a “Hellhole” to a decent prison with sports teams and activities for prisoners.
Sing Sing has housed many famous or infamous prisoners including serial killer David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Eddie Lee Mays, the last man executed by the State of New York.