The history of prisons is almost as old as civilization itself. Since the beginning of history, when the written language was developing, the first civilizations were able to develop written laws that society had to adhere to. As time went on, the ideas of what prisons are and the purpose they serve has been the subject of debate. While the general idea is to punish someone who broke the law by incarcerating them, there has also been a school of thought that prisons should reform the prisoners, not punish them. This debate has continued from ancient Greece until the present day.
Prisons are part of the social structure in the modern world. They have been used throughout history for punishment or rehabilitation for everyone from debtors who could not pay their fines to the hardened murderers. Over hundreds of years, as the population grew and the amount of incarcerated people increased, the prisons grew larger. There have been many prisons throughout history that have become famous, or rather infamous, for a variety of reasons. Either they held famous criminals, or they were known for their cruelty or poor living conditions.
There are many abandoned prisons all over the world today, and they each have a fascinating story. In many cases, the prisoners built the prisons themselves. A few of them were located on islands to discourage escape. A few others were known for the shocking devastation and death caused by prison riots. These 30 images are a few of the world’s abandoned prisons and the sometimes horrific stories behind them.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, San Francisco, CA. Alcatraz is possibly the most infamous prison in the world. Built as a citadel in the 1860s, Alcatraz Prison was built on Alcatraz Island from 1910-1912. It held at one time or another some of the most notorious criminals, such as Whitey Bulger and Al Capone. It is surrounded by the cold, rough waters of San Francisco Bay, so many thought the prison was inescapable. Many prisoners complained of cruel treatment, but the living conditions were better than other prisons. It is most well-known for its documented escape attempts. Photographed by centpacrr, December 31, 2003. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlcatraz_cellhouse%2C_lighthouse_and_Warden’s_House_ruins.jpg
Wyoming Frontier Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming. Wyoming Frontier Prison was the first state prison in Wyoming. Construction on the prison began in 1888, but there were delays because of funding and the state’s brutal weather. The prison finally opened in 1901 with primitive conditions: there was no running water, electricity, and very litte heat. Due to constant overcrowding, additions to the prison began in 1904. Originally, women were held in the prison, a practice that ended in 1909. Another cell block and cells for solitary confinement were added in 1950 to relieve the overcrowding. Proper running water and heating systems were added in the 1970s. The prisoners endured cruel treatment: they were kept in dungeons, strapped to a pole and whipped, and placed into solitary confinement. Wyoming Frontier Prison employed execution on site: it used the gallows, built a separate facility for prisoners who were on death row, and there were gas chambers. The prisoners also contributed to the economy of the state in a variety of professions that were located on the prison grounds: there was a broom factory, a shirt factory, and a woolen mill that made blankets for the military during the Second World War. The prison produced Wyoming license plates until the prison closed in 1981. The prison was abandoned until 1988, when it was turned into a museum. Hauntedhouses.com. Pinterest.
New Mexico State Penitentiary, Santa Fe County, New Mexico. New Mexico State Penitentiary was opened in 1885. The prisoners at New Mexico State Penitentiary were forced into labor. New Mexico became the first state in the Western United States to make prisoners build their highway system. The prisoners were also tortured by the guards and severely abused. The abuse, poor food, and overcrowding led to a deadly riot in 1922 where one prisoner was killed and five others were injured. Another riot in 1956 led the state creating another larger facility. The prisoners were transferred to the other facility and New Mexico State Penitentiary was closed down soon afterwards. In the new prison, one of the most brutal prison riots took place in 1980. Over a 36-hour period, the rioters took control of the prison, 33 prisoners were killed, dismembered, or burned alive. The remains of their bodies were hung on the cells. The part of the prison where this riot occurred, now called “the Old Main,” was closed in 1998. The Old Main is now open to the public for tours. http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/new-mexico/creepy-places-to-visit-nm/
Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise, Idaho. Old Idaho Penitentiary was open from 1870-1973. The prison began as a single-story house in 1870 and grew into a collection of buildings enclosed by a stone wall. The prisoners were forced to build the wall from a local sandstone quarry. The prisoners also were forced to build other structures on the property over the years. It is known for housing the serial killer Lyda Southard, who killed her husbands for their life insurance. The living conditions at Old Idaho State were so poor that it led to two severe riots in the early 1970s. After the riots, the prisoners were move to the new Idaho State Correctional Institution and Old Idaho State closed in 1973. Pinterest.
Detroit House of Correction, Detroit, Michigan. Detroit House of Correction was opened in 1861. Even though it was run by the city, it accepted prisoners from all over the state. One of its most famous inmates was the American outlaw Belle Starr. In 1919, the city bought land to build a new facility for the prison. When the new prison was constructed, a prison camp was opened where the prisoners had to sleep in tents. The new building opened in 1930. When it was placed under state control in 1986, it was changed into a women’s prison and renamed Western Wayne Correctional Facility. Western Wayne was closed down in 2004 and has been abandoned ever since. Pinterest.
Ohio State Penitentiary, Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio State Penitentiary opened in 1834, and a separate facility for women was opened in 1837. It was known for its poor conditions. Two major riots broke out in 1952 and 1968. The prison began executions in 1885: first by hanging, which was later replaced with the electric chair in 1897. Over 300 people were executed by the electric chair on the grounds of the prison from 1897 until the death penalty was outlawed in the state. A deadly fire broke out in 1930, and it killed 322 prisoners and injured 150 others, making it the most deadly prison fire in US history. A scandal erupted at the prison when a virologist conducted experiments on the prisoners. Both the prisoners and cancer patients were injected with cancer cells to see which group could fight off cancer faster. He found that the prisoners fought off the cancer more than the patients he injected, but it brought up issues of informed consent in experimentation. Complaints over the conditions of the prison led to the construction of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Ohio State Penitentiary closed in 1894 and it was used as a National Guard training site. Pinterest.
Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holmesburg Prison was constructed in 1896 and remained in use until 1995. While the prison was open, the inmates were experimented on in pharmaceutical and biochemical weapons tests. Even though all of the experiments were conducted with the consent of the prisoners, they were mostly poor prisoners who couldn’t afford their bail, and they consented to the experiments in exchange for money to make their bail. Over 250 chemical warfare substances were used on the prisoners at Holmesburg, including incapacitating agents and radioactive substances. A 1968 report details hundreds of cases of sexual assault against the inmates. There were also many riots at the prison that took place in the 1970s. Today, the prison is still partially operational; the gymnasium on the property was renovated and it is used to house overflow from other prisons in the area. Pinterest.
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadephia, Pennsylvania. Designed to mimic the feeling of a church, the Eastern State Penitentiary was open from 1829-1971, and it was once the largest and most expensive public building ever constructed. It was famous for its attempts to reform its prisoners instead of punish them, even though it encouraged solitary confinement and physical and psychological torture as a reformatory tool. Despite its position of trying to rehabilitate prisoners, Eastern State Penitentiary was famous for its brutal treatment of prisoners, encouraging solitary confinement, physical torture, and psychological torture to “reform” its prisoners. Prison administrators used “individual treatment” to punish prisoners by separating them from the rest, creating one of the first examples of a solitary confinement prison. By 1913, solitary confinement treatment was eliminated because of overcrowding. It is protected as a United States National Historic Landmark and operates as a museum. Photographed by Jack E. Boucher, 1998. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACell_block_eleven%2C_looking_from_the_%22Death_Row%22_exercise_yard%2C_facing_north_(note_cell_block_fifteen_to_the_right_and_cell_block_fourteen_in_the_distance_-_Eastern_State_HABS_PA%2C51-PHILA%2C354-43.tif
Essex County Jail, Newark, New Jersey. Built in 1837, Essex County Jail was designed to assist with the overcrowding of other jails in New Jersey. It is the oldest building in Essex County. Additions were added in 1890 to increase the amount of prisoners it could hold. There was a crime wave in New Jersey in the 1920s, so Essex County Jail grew to accommodate the influx of prisoners. By the 1930s, it was the largest jail in the area. Eventually, more prisons were built in the area, and prisoners were transferred to them, leading to a decline in occupation at Essex County. It was shut down in 1970 after the construction of another county jail, and it was used as an administrative building. It is well-known for being used as a set in the 1991 film Malcolm X. Photographed by Matthew Christopher. https://untappedcities.com/2015/06/16/abandoned-america-tour-deserted-new-jersey-essex-county-jail-annex/
West Virginia State Penitentiary, Moundsville, WV. West Virginia State Penitentiary was in operation from 1876-1995. Conditions at the prison were initially good until the 20th century. As overcrowding became a problem, the conditions at the prison worsened. There were many escapes and riots during the mid-to-late 20th century. The recreation room in the prison known as the “Sugar Shack” had repeated instances of fighting, gambling, and sexual assault. In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the small cells in the prison, at 5 x 7 feet, were cruel and unusual punishment, and the prison closed less than ten years later. Pinterest.
Tennessee State Penitentiary, Nashville, Tennessee. The Tennessee State Prison was open from 1898-1992. It was built to resemble a fortress. It received 1,403 inmates on the day that it opened, and it was immediately overcrowded. The prison added other buildings over the years, including separate housing for younger offenders convicted of lesser crimes to keep them away from the more hardened criminals. The prison also had a farm, warehouses, and factories where the prisoners were forced into labor. When the prison built a new building the year that it opened, prisoners were forced to build it. Over the years, the prison was plagued by riots and escape attempts. A new prison, the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, was opened in Nashville in 1989. Tennessee State Penitentiary closed three years later. Pinterest.
Old Charleston Jail, Charleston, South Carolina. Old Charleston was open from 1802-1939. It is probably most famous for housing Lavinia Fisher, the convicted highway robber and alleged murderer, and Denmark Vesey, who was suspected of organizing a slave revolt. After Vesey’s failed rebellion, there were strict restrictions placed on slaves and free people of color in the city. Black sailors were also required to stay in the jail while they were in Charleston. The prison also held pirates who were captured on the sea as well as many Union prisoners of war from the Civil War. The property is reputed to be haunted by Lavinia Fisher and others who were executed on the grounds. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/old-charleston-city-jail
Atlanta Prison Farm, Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta Prison Farm was opened in 1945. The prisoners at Atlanta Prison Farm were forced into labor, working the farm where the prison was located. They raised livestock and ran a dairy, among other duties. The prison closed in 1995. A fire consumed most of the prison in 2009, and what is left stands in ruins. There are rumors that animals from the Atlanta zoo are buried on the property. There are also rumors that the old prison farm is haunted. Pinterest.
Bodmin Jail, Cornwall, England. In 1779, Bodmin Jail was built by British prisoners of war. It was the first British prison that used individual cells to house inmates. After the Debtors Act of 1869 eliminated jail time for debtors, it was turned into a naval prison, which took over a wing of the original building. The military jail closed in 1922. Over 50 prisoners were executed in Bodmin during its 150 years of operation. The jail was used during World War I to keep cultural treasures like the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom and the Domesday Book from getting destroyed. Parts of the jail have been repaired and turned into a museum. It is rumored to be haunted, and many paranormal researchers have been to the site to collect evidence. Pinterest.
Her Majesty’s Pentridge Prison, Coburg, Victoria, Australia. Pentridge Prison opened in 1851. It housed some of Australia’s most notorious prisoners, including Ned Kelly. It was notorious for its cruel treatment of prisoners. Prisoners were kept in their cells for 23 hours a day, and there was at least one suicide a month at times. It closed in 1997, and despite rumors of it being haunted, parts of it have since been remodeled into luxury apartments and the former execution block has been turned into a restaurant. Photographed by Nickinator, April 5, 2012. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APentridge_Prison_Cells.jpg