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 now popular and fascinating places to visit.
So if you’re interested in these most notorious tales of life behind bars, then you can follow in the footsteps of the world’s most high profile prisoners, both real and fictional. From the Romans, through the Middle Ages and the slave trade up to today’s hardened criminals, this list of old famous jails to visit will help you find out more about these historical sites.
Some of these prisons were home to hardened criminals, others to political prisoners while some of the places featured on this overview of famous world prisons were used as the location for famous fictional tales of incarceration.
With this list of the most famous prisons in the world you can find out more about the history behind each location. By exploring these famous and infamous prisons you can discover the most fascinating, gruesome, dark and dangerous penitentiaries in the world.
Where are the world's most infamous prisons?
Among the best known prisons in the world, Ohio State Reformatory is famous as the penitentiary where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. OSR 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’, OSR, which closed as recently as 1990, has a dark yet fascinating history brought to life by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.
Devil’s Island in French Guiana was perhaps the most brutal, feared and horrific penal colony in the history of incarceration. The government of Emperor Napoleon III opened the colony, made up of several small islands on the mainland and offshore known as Île de Salut, in 1852 and it was synonymous with horrendous cruelty. The prison was intended for the exile of French political prisoners but was extended to house hardened thieves and murderers. Around 80,000 of France’s worst criminals who took the gruelling 15-day boat trip from Marseilles in below-deck cages passed through Devil’s Island, the vast majority of whom never returned home. Huge numbers died of disease, starvation and absolute brutality and those who completed their sentences were banished from France, forced to stay on the island. Later in the operational timeline prisoners were allowed back to the motherland but it’s estimated that less than 2,000 returned alive. The French stopped sending prisoners to the islands in 1938 and the ‘toughest penal colony of all time’ closed permanently in 1953. Today, tours to the islands are available by boat from Kourou on the mainland although Île du Diable 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.
Chateau d’If stands on a tiny, three hectare island in the Bay of Marseille and as one of the world’smost famous historic prisons it has been described as France’s Alcatraz. It was 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 make the 1,500m swim. Described as a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners (including 3,500 Huguenots) as well as murderers, rapists and thieves, conditions were renowned as some of the most harsh and brutal in all of France. The prison did retribution, not rehabilitation and prisoners, many of whom were chained to the walls, died of neglect and subsequent insanity. One inmate who is often quoted – wrongly – as spending time in this notorious jail was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, possibly an Italian nobleman, possibly Philippe, the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV or possibly a prisoner called Eustache Dauger but even today, his true identity stays a mystery. Chateau d’If became world famous with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844. Today the prison museum attracts thousands of visitors every year with tours culminating in the cell named after Dantès with a small fissure in the wall from where he was said to have escaped.
In any list of the world’s most famous prisons, Alcatraz comes in every top five alongside the like of the Tower of London, Robben Island, Devil’s Island and the Bangkok Hilton. Alcatraz operated as a maximum high-security federal prison from August 1934 until March 1963. The buildings were modernised in the early 1930s to meet standards for America’s new state-of-the-art penitentiaries and on 11th August 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived from the notorious Leavenworth in Kansas. Average population numbers hovered around 260 – 275 (always one man to one cell) out of a capacity of 336 and living conditions were said to be better than other prisons but make no mistake, it was a grim, utterly inhospitable place where only food, clothing shelter and medical care were rights. Everything else was earned. Alcatraz 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 1.5 million visitors a year. The tour offers a fascinating and sometimes gruesome journey through the history of Alcatraz including Al Capone’s cell and the Cellhouse Audio Tour is narrated by former inmates, guards and staff and includes tales of escapes, riots, the Battle of ’46 and surviving solitary.
Built in stages between 1886 and 1901 in downtown Hanoi by the French, Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘Hell’s hole’ – 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, beatings and deprivation of basic human rights like sleep and food. Originally intended for 450 inmates (but by the 1950s was home to over 2,000), Hỏa Lò went through three distinct periods. During the colonial French era, it was known, as all urban French prisons were, as ‘Maison Centrale’ – Central House – and was intended to hold Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence, many of whom were subsequently tortured and executed. After the French suffered their unexpected defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South and Hỏa Lò served as an education centre for revolutionary doctrine and activity. Then came the Vietnam War. The first US prisoner arrived at Hỏa Lò in August 1964 and until 1973, almost 600 American POWs were interred here, including future Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was sarcastically coined – their treatment was horrific and brutal and breached the Geneva Convention to which Vietnam was a signatory. Save for the small southern section, the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and today, the museum focuses predominantly on the French colonial era and has been described as a ‘bare-knuckles recreation of destitution’.
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 S-21. 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 and every window had iron bars. 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 or in the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Huge purges took place at Tuol Sleng, including that of the country’s previous regime and perhaps the most shocking statistic among a collection of shocking statistics was that of the thousands who were held here, only seven survived. Famously, 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. Visits to Tuol Seng (turned into a museum in 1980 after the invading Vietnamese liberated the prison) have been described as ‘profoundly depressing’ and ‘demonstrating the darkest side of the human spirit’.
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. However, Elmina Castle has a far, far darker history. The building itself is a grand, white-washed fortified medieval castle surrounded by blue seas, palm tree-lined beaches and stunning views of the Gulf of Guinea. 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. Having no idea what horrors awaited them both on the slave ships and at their final unknown destinations, they were kept in the castle’s dark, airless and swelteringly-hot underground dungeons for up to three months. They suffered the most horrific, humiliating and depraved conditions imaginable, up to 1,500 men and women at a time, shackled and cramped. They would undergo torture and indignities of the most base level before passing through the Door of No Return and onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean and other Portuguese colonies as well as North and South America. The Dutch carried on until 1814 and in 1872 Elmina Castle came under the auspices of the British Empire until 1957 when the newly-independent nation of Ghana assumed control. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1972, Elmina Castle is a popular tourist destination in Ghana offering daily tours and it is especially popular with African-American tourists looking to connect with their heritage.
The imposing bluestone structure of Old Melbourne Gaol opened in 1845 and in the 79 years of its operation, some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals passed through its doors, some never to emerge. Australia’s most famous citizen Ned Kelly – occupier of cell 113 – was convicted of murder and executed by hanging here in November 1880 and other infamous inmates included serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming – suspected by some to be Jack the Ripper – and vicious gangster Squizzy Taylor. In total, over 130 people were hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol and the list of inmates, even by 19th century standards, was decidedly odd. Parts of the structure were incorporated into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the 1970s and today, the three story museum offers visitors a fascinating insight in to the antipodean penal system including 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. Candlelit ghost tours are run throughout the year with some paranormal enthusiasts claiming to have heard female voices – one claimed to have recorded ‘a ghostly figure with a grotesque visage standing in a doorway’ – but evidence is unsurprisingly thin.
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. Its most famous prisoner – prisoner 466/64 – was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the country’s president. In all, Mandela was imprisoned for almost 27 years, together with many other anti-apartheid activists. Robben Island’s prison closed in 1996. In addition to touring the maximum security prison buildings, the tour includes a 45 minute guided bus ride around the island and interaction 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.
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 better known as a place of torture and execution. It was here that some of the UK’s most famous historical figures – such as Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More – met their brutal end. The story of the Tower dates back to the 1070s. Sitting on the banks of the River Thames, it 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 the United Kingdom – and probably its most haunted. For those with a morbid fascination therefore, it’s a must. But it also houses the royal family jewels, so it’s got a lighter side too. Definitely a must see for any UK trip.