Top 10: Notorious Prisons
By Ben Dutka
Prisons are society’s punishment. While the theory of incarceration remains similar the world over, the methods of enforcement can change drastically. The following is a list of the 10 most notorious jails on earth; they are the worst of the worst and the lowest of the low.
San Quentin State Prison
Description: San Quentin is California’s best-known prison, and is responsible for producing some of the most infamous prison stories in the country’s history. It contains the state’s only death row and it has a gas chamber, which is now only used for lethal injections. The prison requires an immense staff of 1,548 to maintain a semblance of control, but despite that figure, they still can’t seem to provide decent health care. A 2005 report found that doctors constantly misdiagnose illnesses and operate in filthy conditions. The experts filing the report said: "We found a facility so old, antiquated, dirty, poorly staffed, poorly maintained, with inadequate medical space and equipment and overcrowded that it is our opinion that it is dangerous to house people there.”
The worst part: It doesn’t seem to matter how many guards there are, how strictly enforced the rules are or how much prison reform is done: Violence in San Quentin will forever be an issue. In 1982, a riot erupted that required 24 shotgun blasts to subjugate the uprising that resulted in the serious injuries of 22 convicts and four correctional officers. In February, 2006, 100 inmates were injured and two were killed in racially motivated attacks that resulted in a lockdown for 1,800 prisoners.
La Sabaneta prison
Venezuela, South America
Description: In the Venezuelan prison system, there are 25,000 prisoners housed in facilities designed for about 15,000; and with roughly one-third of Venezuela’s population below the poverty line, jails like Sabaneta are stuffed. Some prisoners are forced to sleep in hammocks strung up in narrow pipe-access corridors, while the corruption of the system allows inmates with more power and money to attain rooms with more space. Combine this with an understaffed guard detail of about one guard to every 150 inmates, and you have a prison in desperate need of reforming.
The worst part: There are countless violent incidents. One of the most frightening was the death of 108 prisoners as a result of a fierce gun battle in January, 1994, and the level of violence has hardly decreased. The killings were indeed one of the most vicious and tragic in the country’s history, but it’s a common trend: In 1995 alone, an astounding 196 prisoners were killed and 624 were wounded as a result of jail violence.
Description: Turkish prisons certainly have a shady past, to say the least, and Diyarbakir is no exception. From incarcerating children for lifelong sentences to overcrowding to sewage-flooded hallways, the prison redefines fear and hatred.
There is no love lost between guards and prisoners, but a 1996 incident hints at a brutal authoritarian rule that leaves no inmate safe. In what one prisoner described as, “a planned massacre,” an attack on 33 prisoners resulted in 10 dead and 23 injured, nine of which were left in critical condition. An investigation revealed a startling possibility that the guards masterminded the attack, which featured guards and police in full riot gear and equipped with batons and truncheons. They severely beat the prisoners.
The worst part: It’s clear that the inmates have few rights. There is a large population of political prisoners, therefore “certain people” actually get all their basic rights reversed. So, instead of being provided with health care, visits and access to cultural and sports facilities, these rights are taken away and prisoners are held in abeyance. The Turkish government hopes to banish this kind of cruel treatment, but so far everything seems stuck in a “waiting period.”
Argentina, South America
Description: There have been 22 deaths in this prison between February 2004 and November 2005, and the causes for these deaths “have yet to be ascertained.” The prison has a chronic overcrowding problem, housing 1,600 inmates in facilities designed for only 600. The prisoners typically sleep on the floor, are subject to prolonged and frequent lock-downs and they are frequently tortured.
The worst part: The living conditions are a nightmare. Virginia Shoppee, an Amnesty International researcher said, “People imprisoned in Mendoza are in such a desperate situation that they have gone as far as to sew their mouths up in demand of better living conditions.” Journalist Marcela Valente reported: “Up to five prisoners sleep on the floor without mattresses in 4 square-meter cells. They defecate in plastic bags and urinate in bottles. The corridors, littered with several days' worth of garbage, are often flooded by sewage.”
New York, U.S.
Description: The saga of Rikers spans from brutal notoriety in the 1990s to the current state of the prison, which is essentially an impenetrable fortress. Many inmates have said that Rikers is worse than the roughest New York streets.
Prisoner violence is legendary. One account from John Reyes, a guard in 1991, mentions numerous bloody beatings and even murders. Reyes said that a day did not go by that he wasn’t afraid. Due to these circumstances, Rikers has seen a ton of recent reform, and it is now quite possibly the strictest prison in the country. Huge SWAT teams crack down on riots, search cells on a daily basis to confiscate hundreds of makeshift weapons, and reinforce a super-tough Gang Intelligence Unit. In the past, an inmate wasn’t charged with a crime if he attacked another inmate or a guard, but he is now. These changes have helped drop 1,000 stabbings a year to around 70.
The worst part: The legacy of violence will forever haunt Rikers, but the No. 1 issue now is that the place destroys your spirit. The system is one of fierce organization, but the environment strains for chaos, and the two forces are pitted against each other. You feel inclined to protect yourself, but if you’re caught with a shank, you receive more time. Maynard Archer, who has served time in Rikers five times since 1988, says, “They don’t use pepper spray… they use sticks and the threat of fear.”
Description: It’s maybe the most congested prison in Kenya, with 3,800 prisoners inhabiting a prison designed for only 800. Added to that, 250 short-term prisoners are confined to a room designed for 50. They lack everything from mattresses to decent medical assistance to clothing -- many inmates are nearly naked and are constantly sweating from the heat and overpopulation. The prison is home to nationals of other countries as well, and Nigerian prisoner Colin Alexander states, “We are surviving by the grace of God. I don’t think any human being can survive here.”
The worst part: This kind of overcrowding leads to a lack of proper medical attention, sustenance and general assistance. It also turns the prison into a breeding ground for countless diseases, and the unsanitary conditions only magnify the problem. The prison is finally catching a break after the end of former President Moi’s rule.
Tadmor military prison
Description: Syrian poet, and five-year inmate, Faraj Beraqdar, described Tadmor military prison as, “The kingdom of death and madness.” Tadmor is known for its outrageous torture, its executions and for one of the biggest prison massacres in world history. On June 27, 1980, commando forces from the Defense Brigades savagely murdered an estimated 500 prisoners. One day, after a failed assassination attempt on Damascus President Hafez al-Asad, the commandos arrived at the jail via helicopter and proceeded to kill the inmates in their dormitories.
The worst part: In a word -- torture. The methods used are medieval in nature: Some inmates were killed by the sharp end of an ax and cut into parts, others were roped and dragged to death and still others were brutally beaten by metal pipes. These torture victims consisted of both the guilty and the innocent, and were often randomly selected.
La Sante prison
Description: You know that you’re in a bad place when you get so depressed or insane that you begin swallowing drain cleaner and rat poison to escape. With 124 suicides in 1999 -- compared to 24 in California’s jail population of 160,000 -- La Sante has remained a place of violence, depravity, and brutality, where the weaker prisoners are often turned into slaves. Inmates only spend four hours a day outside of their cells and those with prison-jobs usually work in their cells, which are only 30 square feet with tiny peepholes in the solid metal doors.
The worst part: According to Dr. Veronique Vasseur, a prison doctor, there have been numerous instances of intense abuse. Dozens of inmates are affected with skin disease due to having access to only two showers per week. The guards have kept prisoners with lung disease in poorly ventilated cells that are next to humid laundry rooms. There’s an instance where eight guards tried to hold a prisoner to administer a shot, and when he retaliated, he injured several guards. He was thrown into the punishment block and, 15 days later, he was found severely dehydrated because the guards had cut off the water pipes to his cell.
Administrative Maximum Unit Prison (ADX)
Description: ADX was designed to replace Alcatraz in 1963, and when it opened in 1994 it took imprisonment to a whole new level. The prison strictly enforces repressive techniques of isolation and sensory deprivation. Those incarcerated are only allowed out of their cells for 9 hours each week, and all prisoners are required to eat, sleep and defecate in their cells. They even go so far as to severely limit the amount of sunlight and artificial light received by inmates, and it’s described as being locked in your bathroom for 22 hours a day.
The worst part: There is almost complete and total lack of human interaction. The steel and cement cages effectively destroy any possibility of communication between the prisoners, and even contact with guards is extremely limited. "These guys will never be out of their cells, much less in the yard," says Russ Martin, the Florence prison project manager. Oscar Lopez Rivera, a prisoner of war, states, "Isolation is perfected here, both in the structure of the cell and in the very limited communication. People don't realize the value of human intercourse until it's denied."
Brazil, South America
Description: If you’re looking for hell on earth, look no further than this god-forsaken hole of a prison. Carandiru is the home of the country’s worst prison massacre: 102 inmates were shot dead in 1992. The prison is plagued with atrocious health problems that are almost too horrid to describe. Almost one of every five inmates in the prison's health wing has been diagnosed with HIV, and prisoners are often denied “luxuries” such as anaesthetics for surgery. It has been reported that even the medical director for the jail hasn’t set foot inside the facility in years. As always, there are cries for help, but nothing has changed to combat the terrible conditions. Also, severe torture is very likely not just a rumor, since reports claim that it is on the decline.
The worst part: Like many terrible prisons, Carandiru is overcrowded; however, when you are at double the capacity, you have a very unstable situation. Walter Erwin Hoffgen, the House of Detention Director, has said: "Of course I don't have control of the situation. It would be ridiculous to say I did. The prison has 7,500 inmates and only about 1,000 prison officers, divided into four shifts."
What’s worse -- and perhaps even more shocking -- is the lack of public outcry; most civilians are completely indifferent.
lock ‘em up
Some prisons on this list are microcosms of larger problems in the country, others are created entirely to erase all hope, and still others are just festering sores that are immune to reform. Some have a history of terror that’s been addressed only to be replaced by an environment of pressure and fear, and the rest have a legacy of filth and brutality that still exists today. In the end, all of them have one thing in common: The odds are stacked against the prisoners.
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