The World’s Most Notorious Historic Prisons | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

The World’s Most Notorious Historic Prisons

Discover the most famous prisons in the world, from Alcatraz to the Devil's Island, where you can follow in the footsteps of the world’s most high profile prisoners in these notorious penitentiaries.

Celeste Neill

28 Aug 2021

Murder, torture and tales of devastation, the world’s most notorious former prisons provide a sombre and sobering experience as their tales of tragedy are recited. Yet many of these once-horrifying places now stand as a testament to some of history’s darkest periods and as such are fascinating places to visit.

Discover the dark and dangerous history of these infamous prisons and get a taste of how brutal life was for those who spent their life banged up behind bars.

1. Ohio State Reformatory

Ohio State Reformatory is famous as the penitentiary where the prison themed drama The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. It was originally intended for first-time offenders to be humanely rehabilitated and the architecture was supposed to ‘encourage inmates back to a rebirth of their spiritual lives… away from their sinful lifestyle and toward repentance’ but it very quickly became home to the very worst criminals in the American penal system.

Described variously as ‘brutal’, ‘inhumane’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘unfit for human habitation’, the prison, which closed as recently as 1990, has a dark yet fascinating history.

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Image Credit: Shutterstock

2. Devil’s Island

Devil’s Island in French Guiana was perhaps the most brutal, feared and horrific penal colony in the history of incarceration. Made famous in Henri Charrière’s ‘Papillon’ it was built under orders of the government of Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 in Île de Salut, a trio of islands.

Some 80,000 of France’s worst criminals sent to Devil’s Island and many of them died of disease, starvation and absolute brutality during their time in the prison. Those who did manage to complete their sentences were still banished from France and forced to stay on the island for the rest of their lives. Today, tours to the islands are available by boat although Île du Diable itself remains closed to the public (but visible from the boats). The prison buildings on the other islands have been converted into museums and attract thousands of tourists each year.

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3. Château d’If

Château d’If was a sixteenth century island fortress turned notorious prison built on a tiny, three hectare island in the Bay of Marseille. It has been described as France’s Alcatraz. Built in 1524 on the orders of King Francis I, the fortress soon became a virtually inescapable prison due to its location and the fast-moving currents that rendered even the strongest swimmers unable to escape.

One inmate who is often quoted – wrongly – as spending time in this notorious jail was the unidentified prisoner known as the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, whose face was said to be continually hidden by a mask made of black velvet. Château d’If became one of the most famous prisons in the world with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in 1844, where his hero was wrongly imprisoned for years.

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Image Credit: Shutterstock / f11photo

4. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz operated as a maximum high-security federal prison from August 1934 until March 1963. It was home at one time or another to some of America’s most notorious felons including Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Alvin Karpis.

Today, Alcatraz is a public museum and one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, attracting around over a million visitors a year. The tour offers a fascinating and sometimes gruesome journey through the history of Alcatraz including Al Capone’s cell and and an audio tour that is narrated by former inmates, guards and staff and includes tales of escapes, riots and surviving solitary.

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5. Hỏa Lò Prison

Built in stages between 1886 and 1901 in downtown Hanoi by the French, Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ – was a place of incomprehensible brutality. Prisoners were shackled by one leg, unable to walk or even stand up; many were kept in tiny, damp, dark and filthy solitary confinement cells and were subject to arbitrary physical and mental abuse including torture and deprivation of basic human rights.

Nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ during the Vietnam War, some 600 US Prisoners of War were kept at Hỏa Lò between August 1964 until 1973, including future Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Other than the small southern section, the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and today the museum focuses predominantly on the French colonial era of the prison. It has been described as a ‘bare-knuckles recreation of destitution’.

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6. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

In 1975, fresh from victory in the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer regime commandeered the Chao Ponhea Yat High School in Phnom Penh. They turned it into the notorious Security Prison 21, or known in Khmer as Tuol Sleng. The complex was encased in electrified barbed wire, the rooms were converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers of the most barbaric nature.

Between 1975 and the eventual fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in 1979, it’s estimated that at least 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng Prison. It was transformed into a museum in 1980 after the invading Vietnamese liberated the prison that has been described as ‘demonstrating the darkest side of the human spirit’.  Every prisoner was photographed and the images now cover the walls of the Tuol Sleng Museum as a stark and brutal reminder of the genocidal regime that decimated a country.

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7. Elmina Castle

Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trade settlement on the former Gold Coast – now modern-day Ghana – and it remains the oldest European building south of the Sahara desert. Its initial purpose was to offer safe haven to trade ships passing between Europe and Africa as well as protecting the Gold Coast’s vast gold reserves but in 1637 everything changed. The infamous Dutch slave trade started and the Europeans traded both commodities and human labour with the Brazilians and the Caribbean. It’s estimated that over 30,000 African men and women passed through Elmina Castle, never to return home.

They suffered the most horrific, humiliating and depraved conditions imaginable. Up to 1,500 men and women at a time would be kept shackled in cramped conditions before passing through the Door of No Return. They were then boarded onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean and other Portuguese colonies as well as North and South America. The castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1972.

Remembering the miscarriage of justice that led to the hanging of Mahmood Hussein Mattan.

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8. Old Melbourne Gaol

Old Melbourne Gaol opened in 1845 and during its 79 years of its operation most of Australia’s most dangerous criminals passed through its doors. The infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly – occupier of cell 113 – was convicted of murder and executed by hanging here in November 1880. Other infamous inmates included serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming – suspected by some to be Jack the Ripper – and vicious gangster Squizzy Taylor.

Today the museum offers a fascinating insight in to the antipodean penal system with visitors able to view the cells filled with letters, memorabilia, personal effects and the gruesome death masks of condemned men and women. See the chilling gallows and regular dramatisations of Ned Kelly’s story and get yourself arrested at the adjacent City Police Watch House complete with a padded cell.

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9. Robben Island

Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa was a notorious prison, best known for its internment of political prisoners during South African apartheid. It is best known as the home to not one but three former South African presidents, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and, for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela.

In addition to viewing the maximum security prison buildings, visitors can tour around the island and meet with a former Robben Island prisoner. A symbol of the most difficult and divisive era in South Africa’s history, Robben Island is arguably the most symbolic, evocative and important of all South African historic locations.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

10. The Tower of London

Mention ‘The Tower’ in the past and it would have sent shivers down people’s spine, for though the Tower of London was used as a residence for monarchs of England, it was also used to imprison, torture and execute people who posed a serious threat to national security. It was here that famous historical figures – such as Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More – met their brutal end. It has been a prison for Scottish Kings and French Dukes to common thieves and a few politicians.

The Tower dates back to the 1070s and was originally designed as a fortress-stronghold used to protect England from conquering forces. As was intended, it’s one of the most popular and domineering visitor attractions in London.

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