18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History

Larry Holzwarth - April 16, 2019

Some names immediately conjure images in the mind of harsh conditions, surrounded by dangerous, even deadly inmates, desperate men with nothing left to lose, and thus nothing to restrain their impulses. Alcatraz is one. Sing Sing is another. Around the world, throughout history, notorious prisons were established – some for the detention of those in debt, others to hold political or personal enemies, and some for the incarceration of those guilty of crimes. The castles of the nobility almost always were equipped with dungeons and cells, for the purposes of incarceration, torture, and execution, as well as other somewhat nefarious activities.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Although Napoleon had the freedom of the island, the remote Atlantic Isle of St Helena served as his prison from 1815 until his death in 1821. Wikimedia

Prisons which were once notorious for their inhumanely harsh conditions and the grisly tortures which were conducted there are in many cases tourist attractions, monuments to man’s inhumanity. In some cases whole islands were used as prisons, as in Devil’s Island or the remote speck of land in the South Atlantic known as St. Helena, where the former Emperor of the French, Napoleon I, spent his final years, able to roam about the island in relative freedom, but nonetheless imprisoned upon it. It is impossible to rate the prisons listed here on a basis of the suffering of the individuals held within their walls, but all of them once struck fear in the hearts and minds of those destined to enter them. Here is a list of some of the most infamous prisons in history

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Chateau d’If became internationally famous after Alexandre Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo. Library of Congress

1. Chateau d’If was built as a fortress before being used as a prison by the French

The tiny isle of If is the smallest of the Frioul islands which are situated just outside of the Bay of Marseille, for centuries the site of one of the most important ports of France. In the early sixteenth century King Francis I, recognizing the island’s strategic value regarding defense of the port of Marseille, ordered a fortress erected on the island, built from stone harvested there. The fortress was completed about 1531, and throughout its existence never came under military attack. Called the Chateau, the structure contained dungeons and cells in tiers, and was used as a prison. Wealthy French noblemen who could afford it paid to serve their terms of incarceration there in the upper tiers, with a suite of rooms.

The poorer who could not buy luxuries were kept in dungeon cells, with up to 20 sharing a single cell, sleeping on the stone floors, and sharing a bucket to relieve the calls of nature. By the beginning of the 19th century, it was the most feared prison in France. More than 3,500 French Huguenots were sent to the Chateau, which became famous throughout Europe when Alexandre Dumas used it as the setting of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Since many of the prisoners sent to the Chateau were never documented, dispatched to prison on the whim of a noblemen or priest before the French Revolution, the number of people who died there is impossible to estimate. In the 20th century the Chateau d’If became a tourist attraction, reachable by boat from Marseille. Throughout its history there was never a documented escape from the prison.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Among the many notables imprisoned in the Tower of London were Edward V and the Duke of York. Wikimedia

2. The Tower of London was used as a prison for over 800 years

Built as a defensive fortification by William the Conqueror, the White Tower, for which the castle known as the Tower of London was named, held some notable prisoners from British history. Queen Elizabeth I spent time imprisoned in the Tower, and she sent some notable figures there later herself, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Although popular belief is that the Tower was the site of multiple executions, most executions took place atop Tower Hill to the north, with only seven occurring in the Tower itself prior to the First World War. Twelve convicted of espionage or treason were executed in the Tower during World Wars I and II. Rudolf Hess was held briefly in the Tower in 1941.

The first prisoner to be held in the Tower was the first person to successfully escape his incarceration there. Ranulf Flambard was imprisoned for embezzlement on the order of King Henry I in August 1100. Legend has it that he plied his guards and the custodian of the Tower with wine, and once they were drunk lowered himself out of a window using a rope, and escaped to Normandy via a ship which he had prearranged with friends. There are several variations of the tale of his escape, but it is most likely he simply bribed the custodian, William de Mandeville. Ranulf was the first, but far from the last inmate to escape from the tower over the centuries, most of whom did so through bribery of their guards.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
London’s Newgate Prison held criminals, debtors, and training for executioners. Wikimedia

3. London’s Newgate Prison was used to train executioners until the twentieth century

Newgate Prison was originally built in the twelfth century as a place to hold those accused of crimes while the judges debated their innocence or guilt. Enlarged over the subsequent centuries, Newgate became a prison for both men and women, who often had their children with them while incarcerated, and contained among its inmates those convicted of crime and those imprisoned for debt. The seriousness of the crime determined the type of accommodations, those convicted of the most serious crimes were held in dungeons in shackles while those who could afford it were allowed to purchase food and drink from outside the prison.

In the mid-fifteenth century the prison was closed, demolished, and rebuilt. Three yards were established; one for those who could pay for their accommodations, another for those who could not, and a third for prisoners under unique circumstances. It was rebuilt yet again after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. By the end of the 18th century it was the site for executions in London, and the condemned were kept in isolation, in the world’s first death row. Newgate became the training site for executioners in the United Kingdom, a role it retained until 1901. Among the prisoners held there over the years were the writer Daniel Defoe, Giacomo Casanova (for bigamy), William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and Catherine Wilson, the last woman to be publicly executed in London.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
A German depiction of the Black Hole of Calcutta doesn’t begin to show the severity of the crowding of the men in the room. Wikimedia

4. The prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta were only held there overnight

The name of the Black Hole of Calcutta brings the image to mind of a dungeon in which prisoners were held under the harshest imaginable conditions for what seemed to be an eternity. The conditions, according to survivors, were indeed harsh, with a disputed number of British prisoners of war, employees of the East India Company, and Anglo-Indian soldiers, forced into a cramped, unlit dungeon at Fort William in Bengal. The dungeon measured about 14′ by 18′, and according to one account, 164 men were forced into the room. Two windows to the outside were so heavily barred that ventilation was restricted. The following morning 143 of the prisoners were dead of suffocation.

The bodies of the dead were disposed of in a ditch outside of the fort’s walls, and the remaining prisoners were held for another two days before being released to work. Other survivors of the Black Hole were transferred to other prisons. Robert Clive’s successful expedition to retake Calcutta resulted in the overthrow and death of the Bengal Nawab history holds responsible for the death of the prisoners, Siraj ud-Daulah, though some of the survivors of the Black Hole recorded that in their opinion the Nawab had been unaware of the imprisonment. None of the accounts of the tale agree regarding the number imprisoned, the number of dead, and the length of the imprisonment, but the Black Hole of Calcutta became synonymous with the direst of circumstances.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Though popuar history regards the Bastille as the site of harsh and cruel punishment, conditions for its prisoners were actually quite comfortable for the time. Wikimedia

5. The English used the Bastille in Paris as a prison in the fifteenth century

The Bastille – formally the Bastille Saint-Antoine – was like many prisons of the past originally built as a fortress as part of the defenses of Paris. By the early fifteenth century it was used to imprison those afoul of the law or the mood of certain members of the nobility. When the English captured the Bastille in 1420 they garrisoned the fortress and expanded its use as a prison facility, creating cells on the upper floors rather than just confining prisoners to the dungeons. In the mid seventeenth century the Bastille became a prison in its entirety and grew the reputation of being one of the most oppressive and harsh prisons in France. It was a reputation not entirely deserved.

For the most part prisoners in the Bastille were treated well by the time of Louis XIV, able to furnish their rooms as they wished if they had the funds to do so. Many of the imprisoned were joined by their families. The Marquis de Sade lived luxuriously in the prison, though Francois Arouet, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, described his time in the Bastille as one of deprivation and harsh treatment by guards. Eventually the Bastille became a standing symbol of the oppression of the monarchy and the nobility, though most of the prisoners through its last two centuries had come from the upper classes. By the time of the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789, only seven inmates were present.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
The Hotel de Ville (City Hall) built by the French in Cayenne, French Guiana. Wikimedia

6. Devil’s Island was but one of several prisons of the Penal Colony of Cayenne

For just over a century the French operated a prison complex as a penal colony in present day Suriname which is usually referred to as Devil’s Island. In fact, Devil’s Island was originally used by the penal colony as a refuge for lepers. By the 1890s the island was used to house political prisoners. It was part of a colony which included several labor camps on the mainland, a reception and processing center on Ile Royale, and a punishment facility on Saint-Joseph Island, where inmates were held in isolation and darkness, not permitted to speak to one another. The entire complex presented conditions which made transportation there a virtual death sentence, from violence, malnutrition, or disease.

In order to maintain a colony in French Guiana, beginning in 1854 prisoners in the penal colony were forced to remain in the region, on the mainland, for a period of time equal to the length of their sentence once it was completed. A seven year imprisonment meant a required stay of seven years following release. Most of the prisoners sent to the penal colony never saw France again. In the late 19th and early 20th century activists clamored to reform the prison system and close the penal facilities, but France continued to send prisoners there until it finally began to shut down the penal colony in 1946. It took seven years to complete the process, and by then the penal colony known as Devil’s Island had become one of the most infamous in history.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
A post card rendering of Moscow’s Lubyanka Square in the early 1900s. Wikimedia

7. Lubyanka prison in Moscow was in the basement of the secret police headquarters

The building above what is commonly known as Lubyanka prison was originally built by an insurance company, and was taken over by the Cheka, as the secret police was then known, after the Bolshevik revolution. It quickly became a building regarded with fear by Muscovites. Its small, two-story cellblock in the building’s basement was where dissidents, political enemies of the regime, suspected spies, and people denounced by others were taken and held during investigations by the Soviet secret police, which operated under several different names over the years. As documented by some who survived the process of interrogation – a euphemism for torture – which included Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lubyanka was a living hell for those taken there.

Nor was Solzhenitsyn the only person to describe some of what took place in the Lubyanka building over the lifetime of the Soviet Union. The Soviets themselves described Raoul Wallenberg dying while in custody in Lubyanka, though they gave other versions of his death as well. British diplomat and spy Bruce Lockhart worked with Sidney Reilly in 1918 in a plot to overthrow the Bolshevik regime before Reilly vanished into Lubyanka in the 1920s. Lockhart published the story in 1932. Later it was revealed that Reilly, who had worked extensively at espionage for the British, was tortured and interrogated at Lubyanka before being taken into the woods outside of Moscow and shot. Many of the officers of the Soviet Army purged by Stalin in the 1930s walked through the doors at Lubyanka, never to walk out again.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Spandau Prison in Berlin was kept open for over two decades to incarcerate one man, Rudolf Hess, second from left in the front row. US Army

8. Spandau prison held but one inmate for over twenty years

Spandau prison in Berlin, built in 1876, was originally a military prison, and shifted to holding civilian prisoners during the riots in Berlin in 1919. The Nazi regime initially held many “undesirables” and political prisoners within its walls before the opening of the concentration camps, after which such prisoners were transferred. It was following the Second World War when the prison which had been built to hold 600 men was used to incarcerate only seven, operated by all four of the occupying powers of Germany; the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France. Each of the powers operated the prison for a month on a rotating basis. The prisoners were Baldur von Schirach, Erich Raeder, Konstantin von Neurath, Karl Doenitz, Albert Speer, Walther Funk, and Rudolf Hess, all convicted war criminals.

Their daily routines were strictly regimented though the prisoners and their guards noted that the periods when the Soviets operated the prison were far harsher than those under the other three powers. Over time the guards grew more lax regarding the regulations, though the Soviets continued to enforce them rigorously for many years. By 1966 only three prisoners remained, Hess, Speer, and von Schirach. The latter two were released at the end of September that year. For the next twenty-one years the prison continued to be operated by the four powers for the purpose of incarcerating one man, Rudolf Hess. When Hess died in August of 1987 the prison was demolished to avoid its becoming a shrine for neo-Nazis, and a shopping and entertainment center was built on the site.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
The Vietnamese converted Hoa Lo prison into a museum which includes exhibits from the days of French colonialism and the Vietnam War, here being visited by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. US State Department

9. The Hanoi Hilton was a prison built by the French in the 19th century

In the late 19th century the French colonizers in Indochina built a prison in Hanoi which became known locally as Hoa Lo, though the French gave it the name Maison Centrale (Central House). Hoa Lo in Vietnamese refers to a hot stove, and the name came about because of the proliferation of wood and coal stove dealers on the street, also named Hoa Lo, on which the prison was built. The French used the prison to hold, interrogate, often torture, and sometimes execute Vietnamese who opposed the French presence in Indochina and demanded independence. Expanded to a capacity of 600 inmates in 1913, by 1954 more than 2,000 Vietnamese were imprisoned, under increasingly brutal conditions as the Viet Minh fought to expel the French.

Following the defeat and withdrawal of the French in Indochina, the new government in North Vietnam developed the prison into an education center, considering it an example of the people’s heritage under the French. Thus it was available when the Americans began to lose prisoners to the Vietnamese during the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The first American prisoner to be held in Hoa Lo arrived in 1964, by 1970 most of the prison camps in North Vietnam were consolidated at Hoa Lo, which the Americans sarcastically called the Hanoi Hilton. POWs were tortured and beaten despite North Vietnam being a signatory of the convention outlawing such behavior. The prison was demolished in the 1990s, with a small section remaining as a museum. As of 2015, the Hilton Hotel chain operated two Hilton’s in Hanoi.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Before New York opened this state prison at Sing Sing it operated a smaller facility known as Newgate in Greenwich Village. Wikimedia

10. New York City had its own Newgate Prison

In the late 1790s, the section of New York City today known as Greenwich Village was just that, a rural village separate from the city, for the most part peaceful and serene. In 1797 the site was selected for the construction of New York’s first official penitentiary, built along the Hudson in the area of the modern city’s West 10th Street. It was named Newgate Prison, though unlike its famous London namesake it was not situated near a gate in a wall, and the name was likely selected because it was already tied to penal institutions in the public mind. It was designed to hold about 430 inmates in relative comfort for the time, and it was intended to both punish and rehabilitate the prisoners it held.

Within two decades the prison held more than twice the number of inmates than that for which it was intended, and the overcrowding led to the authorities releasing inmates early to make room for more. It was unable to provide much in the way of rehabilitation, rioting and violence among the inmates meant that the guards were too busy protecting the imprisoned from one another. The inmates were for the most part from the city to the south, and the phrase “sent up the river” first applied to the inmates sent there by New York’s courts. In 1824 conditions at Newgate were so vile that the state authorized the construction of a new prison further upriver, at Ossining, which opened in 1826 as Sing Sing, a site where New York has maintained a prison system ever since.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Charles Dickens drew on the experiences of his own childhood to create the vivid descriptions of Marshalsea in Little Dorrit. Wikimedia

11. Marshalsea in London became famous as a setting in the novel Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

The prison in which Charles Dickens set much of his novel Little Dorrit was the second prison established at Marshalsea, in Southwark, just south of the Thames River in what is today’s London. The first had housed both criminals and debtors, the second, described in detail by Dickens, was primarily used to hold debtors and their families. Dickens knew well whereof he wrote; his father had been imprisoned there for debt when Charles was but twelve years of age, forcing the boy to work to help his family survive. The British debtor prison system was operated for profit, with those jailed because they owed money forced to pay for food, lodgings, and other amenities. It was possible to be incarcerated for indebtedness for as little as five pounds at the time Dickens’ father (and mother and sisters) were lodged in Marshalsea.

Although the imprisoned were there because they had no money, or at least not enough to settle their debts to the satisfaction of their creditors, the prison operated a bar, called a snuggery, where beer could be purchased by the prisoners. Inmates were provided with beds, but if they desired additional furniture they had to purchase it on their own. Marshalsea also had a separate section for prisoners sent there from the Royal Navy for various infractions, including what the navy referred to as “unnatural crimes”, a reference to homosexual behavior. Officially they were kept away from the debtors, unofficially they mingled with the other prisoners at will, with the jail keepers willing to look the other way. Scholars of Charles Dickens’ life and work report that the descriptions of Marshalsea in Little Dorrit are accurate, and if anything a softening of actual conditions in the prison, as a means of not offending the Victorian sensibilities of his audience.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Imposing Kilmainham Gaol, where numerous political prisoners and republican leaders were imprisoned and executed. Wikimedia

12. Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin was the site of numerous executions of Irish revolutionaries

When it was opened in 1796 in Dublin, Kilmainham Gaol was commonly called the New Gaol, in reference to its replacing an ancient dungeon which stood nearby. The New Gaol was a place of detention for men, women, and children, who were placed together in the cells without regard to age or sex. Up to five persons were crowded into the windowless cells, heated and lit by a single candle. Candles were issued every two weeks and thus needed to be used sparingly. Men slept on cots with straw mattresses, women and children on straw piled on the stone floors of the cells. Many of the inmates remained until they escaped by being deported to Australia.

By the 1830s there was a separate women’s section, and the prisoners were segregated. The women’s cells remained overcrowded, and the famines in Ireland increased the prison population dramatically as more and more were forced to beg, vagrancy being a crime, or steal their food. Chronically overcrowded and undersupplied by the British government, the prison became known as a symbol of the British oppression, as well as the site of execution by hanging or shooting of Irish revolutionaries and common criminals. The Irish Free State also executed republican prisoners in the prison during the Irish Civil War. Portions of the prison were designated as a museum and its restored chapel was opened to the public in 1971.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Port Arthur prison used an experimental model which led to some of the inmates going insane. Wikimedia

13. Port Arthur prison was the destination for some of Britain’s most hardened criminals

When using convicts as the human population for colonies a certain level of recidivism is to be expected, as was the case in the American colonies, where some of the earliest public buildings erected were jails. The same was true in the Australian colonies and those of New Zealand and Tasmania. Port Arthur was established in the latter as a timber camp in 1830, and from 1833 to 1853 received convicts as a penal colony which included recidivists from the other penal colonies of the South Seas as well as convicts directly from Great Britain. It was located on an isthmus which was fenced and heavily guarded, including with deliberately half-starved dogs, with the other three sides surrounded by shark-infested waters.

Prisoners which behaved well were rewarded with better food than new arrivals or miscreants, who were fed bread and water. They were also hooded, and prohibited from speaking with one another in the prison, which was completed in 1853 and later expanded. The so-called Silent System was implemented in the belief that the resulting isolation led to self-reflection which in turn would lead to more socially acceptable behavior. Many of the prisoners went insane under the system, and the government built an asylum next to the prison to accommodate them, though conditions there were little better than those in the prison. Prisoners at Port Arthur included boys as young as 9 years of age, kept segregated from the adult prisoners.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
An Elderly Prisoner Praying at the door to the Gallows, drawn by an unknown prisoner at Sugamo in 1949. Wikimedia

14. Sugamo Prison in Tokyo was built and operated on the prevalent European model of the time

In the early 1890s Japanese officials toured several of the prisons operated in the European countries of the day and developed recommendations for the construction of a prison in Tokyo to be operated in a similar manner. The result was Sugamo Prison, which opened in 1895. During the rise of militarism in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s it became the site where political dissidents were sent as prisoners, mingled among the criminals which had been convicted by the Japanese legal system. It also became known and feared as a site where the Japanese military and secret police (the kampetai) tortured and executed those suspected of sedition, espionage, sabotage, and other crimes against the government.

In 1941 a Russian spy working undercover as a journalist in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, informed Stalin that the Japanese were planning an attack on the Americans and would not invade Siberia. The information allowed Stalin to transfer significant numbers of troops and equipment to the west for the defense of Moscow. Sorge was later caught, tortured, and executed by the Japanese at Sugamo. The United States used the prison to hold Japanese war criminals after World War II and seven were executed within the prison’s walls. Others served their sentences there, including Iva Toguri, known to history as Tokyo Rose. Sugamo Prison was closed in 1962, and demolished in 1971.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
The Solovki camp was built around a former monastery after most of the monks were executed. Wikimedia

15. The Solovki Prison Camp was known as the mother of the Soviet Gulag

Gulag is an acronym in Russian for Main Administration of Camps, which through usage became an English word referring to forced labor prison camps. The Soviets demurred from use of the term forced labor and referred to the camps as corrective labor camps, which were established under Lenin and greatly expanded by Stalin in the 1930s to the 1950s. Often the only route out of Lubyanka alive was to the destination of one of the camps. The Solovki camp was established by confiscating a monastery in the White Sea in 1922, executing the monks who protested, and burning all of the wooden buildings. The remaining monks were sent to other forced labor camps.

Although petty criminals were sent to the gulag, most of the inmates were political prisoners, and the Soviet guards used the criminal inmates as spies on the others. The main corrective labor performed by the inmates was on the White Sea – Baltic canal, part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, and a project in which up to 25,000 laborers died. Another up to 10,000 inmates were shot by camp guards or transferred to Solovki for execution. When war clouds loomed in 1939 Solovki was deemed to be too near the front lines, and though a few prisoners were transferred to other camps, the majority were transferred to the mainland and shot. The exact number of prisoners who died at Solovki or while being transferred from it cannot be known with certitude.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
A galley crosses the bow of a Durch East Indiaman off Malta in the mid 17th century. Wikimedia

16. Convicts could be sentenced to the galleys as late as the early nineteenth century

Galleys served the state as seagoing prisons for centuries, including the Phoenician, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman Empires, and continued to do so in the European empires up to and including that of Napoleon. Charles IX of France decreed that sentences to the galleys could not be for a period of less than ten years, as part of his expansion of his fleet in 1564. Prisoners condemned to the galleys were branded, marking them permanently as a galley slave even after a sentence was completed, though completion of sentence was academic. Nobody on board of the vessel kept track of the time served, other than the prisoner himself, and most never left the galleys.

In the latter half of the 18th century oars mostly disappeared from ships, though some smaller vessels still retained oars known as sweeps. Under French law, sentencing to the galleys continued when there were no galleys. The French navy continued to receive the prisoners, keeping them in dungeons ashore or on prison hulks in the harbors of Brest, Toulon and Marseille, using them for the heavy labor of the ports. They were fed the same rations as the navy allotted its crews, salt pork and beef, ship’s biscuit, and water. Most of the galley prisoners were kept shackled to one another as they worked, and few survived their sentence. Many of the prisoners which were sent by the French to the Devil’s Island penal colony were originally galley slaves, which the French navy wanted to rid itself of, due to the expense of retaining them.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
Colditz Castle was believed by the Germans to be escape-proof, but Allied prisoners from several nations proved them wrong. Bundesarchiv

17. Colditz Castle was both a mental health asylum and a prison for political prisoners before serving as a prisoner of war facility

Colditz Castle was over 400 years old when it was converted to serve as a sanitarium for both the mentally disturbed and those suffering from tuberculosis beginning in 1829. It continued in that role until 1924, when the disruptions of post-World War I Germany led to its closure. In 1933 the new Nazi government converted the castle to be a prison for political enemies, communists, Jews, and some convicted of petty crimes by the German courts. After the completion of concentration camps most such prisoners were transferred, and in 1939 Colditz became a prisoner of war camp, receiving Poles, Czechs, British and British Empire, and French prisoners.

Although the Germans considered Colditz to be escape proof, several POWs successfully escaped the complex through a variety of daring means. In 1943 the Germans decided to keep only British and American prisoners at the camp. After the war, during which Colditz was liberated by the Americans, it fell under the Soviet zone of occupation. The Soviets used it for a time as a lockup for local criminals and for political dissidents, until the sheer number of uncompleted escape tunnels and hide-outs within the structure forced them to abandon it as a prison. French, Dutch, Polish, Belgian, British, and Indian officers all successfully escaped from Colditz during the war, and many other planned attempts were abandoned as it became clear that the war was nearly over.

18 Inhumane and Notorious Prisons in History
The Canadian born outlaw Pearl Hart sits in her cell at Yuma Territorial Prison circa 1900. Wikimedia

18. Yuma Territorial Prison in the Arizona territory opened in 1876

When the Yuma Territorial Prison opened, receiving its first seven inmates in 1876, it was considered by those sentenced to serve their time in the new facility as virtually escape proof without considerable help from outside. Surrounded by arid desert, baking in the summer heat, and with well-armed and trained guards, Yuma was not a desirable destination. Much of the prison was built by the prisoners themselves under the watchful eyes of the guards. In 1878 the prison’s first female inmate arrived. In 1884 electricity was installed in the prison, for lighting as well as a for a forced air ventilation system. Riots occurred in the prison, including an outbreak among the prisoners in 1887 which led to the deaths of four inmates.

Although the prison was eventually equipped with a dark cell, for solitary confinement as a punishment, and used the method of shackling known as a ball and chain for other misbehavior, it also contained a library which eventually stocked over 2,000 books, making it the largest in the Arizona Territory at the time. By the first decade of the twentieth century the prison was overcrowded and rather than enlarge the Yuma Prison another facility was built in Florence. Yuma Territorial Prison closed as an incarceration facility in 1909 (Arizona did not become a state until 1912), and later housed Yuma High School for a short time. In 1961 the former prison site became Arizona’s third state park. Yuma Territorial Prison has been a plot device in numerous western themed motion pictures and television programs, and remains a popular tourist destination.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“If Castle and Frioul Islands”. Discover Marseille. Marseille-tourisme.com. Online. (French)

“The Tower of London”. Geoffrey Parnell. 1993

“Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell”. Stephen Halliday. 2007

“The Black Hole: Money, Myth, and Empire”. Jan Dalley. 2006

“The Crowd in the French Revolution”. George Rude. 1967

“Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies”. Stephen Toth. 2008

“The dark history of Lubyanka”. Georgy Manaev, Dmitriy Romendik, Russia Beyond. February 11, 2014. Online

“Nazi war criminals in Spandau prison ‘could not sleep due to searchlights'”. Owen Bowcott, The Guardian. December 28, 2017

“Vietnam: A History”. Stanley Karnow. 1983

“Inside the Apple” A Streetwise History of New York City”. Michelle Nevius and James Nevius. 2009

“The Worst Poverty: A History of Debt and Debtors”. Hugh Barty-King. 2006

“Kilmainham Gaol Museum”. Office of Public Works (Ireland). Online

“The History”. Port Arthur Historic Site. Online

“Stalin’s Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring”. Robert Whymant. 2006

“Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through its most Remarkable Islands”. Roy R. Robson. 2004

“Sentenced to the Galleys”. Musee Virtuel du Protestantisme. Online (French)

“Collecting Colditz and its Secrets”. Michael Booker. 2005

“Yuma Territorial Prison Timeline”. Yuma Territorial Prison Museum. Online