Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times

Patrick Lynch - August 3, 2017

In some countries, you may hear stories about prisoners who live in relative luxury. In these penitentiaries, inmates have access to games rooms and even enjoy a nice comfortable cell. Of course, there are plenty of prisons around the world where harsh and brutal treatment is the norm. With disease, overcrowding and gang violence, no one wants to end up in such a place. Believe it or not, there are prisons in history which make many notorious modern facilities look tame in comparison; here are 7 of the worst.

1 – Pitesti Prison

Pitesti Prison was a penal facility in Communist Romania that was built in the late 1930s. The first political prisoners entered the jail in 1942, and it quickly developed a reputation for bizarre methods of torture. Pitesti earned its place in history as a brutal prison due to the re-education experiments conducted there from December 1949 to September 1951. The goal of the experiments was to brainwash prisoners into giving up their religious and political beliefs and alter their personalities to the stage where they displayed total obedience.

It is regarded as the largest brainwashing and torture experiment conducted by the Communist Bloc. In total, up to 5,000 people were victims of ‘re-education’ and it followed on from similar attempts at a prison in Suceava. The stages of re-education involved psychological and physical torture.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
The type of conditions endured by inmates at Pitesti. Alchetron

The first stage, known as ‘external unmasking’ involved the use of torture to interrogate inmates. They had to reveal everything about their personalities and were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. The next stage, known as ‘internal unmasking,’ involved the prisoners providing the names of people who were lenient towards them during early interrogations. The third phase, known as ‘public moral unmasking,’ involved public humiliation. Prisoners had to renounce their entire belief system. For example, Christians were dressed up like Christ and forced to blaspheme sacred texts and religious symbols.

Typical punishments involved guards dunking the heads of prisoners into buckets of urine and feces. Religious prisoners had to eat feces as Holy Communion and inmates were forced to urine, defecate and spit into the mouths of other prisoners. Eventually, the prison was closed in 1952 and members of the group that experimented were punished. Eugen Turcanu, one of the prisoners, became the leader of the Pitesti Experiment but was executed for his crimes in 1954 along with several other torturers.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
Andersonville Prison in August 1864. NPS.gov

2 – Camp Sumter Military Prison at Andersonville

This military prison facility at Camp Sumter is better known as Andersonville, and it was the largest Confederate prison during the Civil War. It was built in February 1864 specifically for the purpose of housing Union soldiers. Out of the 45,000 people imprisoned there during the war, up to 13,000 died. The prison was built to house the growing number of POWs around Richmond. However, almost 1,000 people died per month due to malnutrition, poor sanitation, disease, and overcrowding.

The prison pen was surrounded by hewed pine logs up to 17 feet high and was enlarged a couple of months after the facility opened. There were sentry posts around 90 feet apart and a special ‘deadline’ approximately 19 feet from the walls. This line consisted of a post and fence; guards were instructed to shoot any prisoner that reached over the fence. The majority of the prison had only one source of water; Stockade Branch.

Once the first POWs arrived in February 1864, approximately 400 arrived every day afterward. The problem of overcrowding became apparent by the end of June when there were 26,000 prisoners; Andersonville originally had a maximum capacity of 10,000. By August 1864, there were around 31,700 inmates; more than at any other time. A combination of the South’s declining economic conditions and the need to supply Confederate troops meant that the prisoners were unable to receive adequate food, water, and other supplies. According to Joseph Jones, one of the most prominent experts on infectious diseases at the time, one of the main causes of death was ‘scorbutic dysentery‘; also known as bloody diarrhea caused by lack of vitamin C.

The decline of prisoner exchanges also contributed to the high mortality rate. In July 1864, the commandant of the prison, Captain Henry Wirz, paroled five Union prisoners and sent them back to friendly lines with a petition. It was signed by the inmates of Andersonville and was a request to bring back the prisoner exchange system to alleviate the overcrowding. Sadly, the request was denied, and the five men returned to tell their comrades about the decision.

From September 2 onwards, the Confederates began moving prisoners from Andersonville to other camps. This was because Sherman’s forces had occupied Georgia and was in striking range of the prison. Andersonville was closed at the end of the Civil War, and Wirz was tried and convicted of ‘murder in violation of the laws of war’ and other crimes. He was executed on November 10, 1865.

Related: The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
Inside Carandiru Prison. Toptenz

3 – Carandiru Penitentiary

This prison was built in Sao Paolo in 1920 and was specifically designed to meet new criminal code regulations in Brazil. However, it was not officially opened until 1956, so it was immediately an outdated penal facility. At its peak, Carandiru held approximately 8,000 inmates with only 1,000 prison guards. Conditions within the prison were truly horrific as gangs controlled every inch while diseases were poorly treated and malnutrition was normal.

As a result, the prison was hit with an HIV epidemic which claimed the lives of countless prisoners. By the 1990s, the inmates practically ran the jail, but this situation led to a chain of events that went down in infamy. On October 2, 1992, an argument between two prisoners about football teams led to an all-out riot between two rival gangs.

The ratio of prisoners to guards meant the situation got out of control and the military police stormed the prison after the inmates had rioted for three hours. Rather than trying to negotiate, the police opened fire, and a bloodbath ensued. Overall, 111 people died; the police were responsible for 102 deaths while 9 inmates were stabbed to death by rivals before the military intervention.

Apparently, one of Brazil’s most notorious gangs, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), was formed in 1993 as a direct result of the Carandiru Massacre. The PCC is believed to have murdered Jose Ismael Pedrosa, who was the prison’s director at the time of the massacre. The prison was ultimately demolished in 2002. In the aftermath, Colonel Ubiratan Guimaraes was sentenced to 632 years in prison for mishandling the incident. However, in September 2006, he was assassinated.

Justice for the massacre was slow in coming, but in April 2013, a total of 23 policemen were jailed for their role. Four months later, another 25 police were sentenced to prison time, and in April 2014, another 15 police were found guilty of murder. Their lawyers tried to claim the police shot the inmates in self-defense but the dead were riddled with an average of five bullets. Survivors of the massacre claim the police shot prisoners who were in the process of surrendering.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
Depiction of prisoners at Urga. Digital Library

4 – Urga, Mongolia

Even in the modern era, Mongolia’s prisons are notorious for their harsh conditions and cruel punishments. Although the nation has developed somewhat since it ceased to be a Soviet satellite state in the early 1990s, its prison system is still trapped in the mists of time. Today, the poorest members of society are badly treated with lengthy sentences given for seemingly minor crimes.

Mongolia is still laden with ‘detention centers’ that are designed for people awaiting trial. The trouble is, these facilities are even more dangerous than regular jails for convicted criminals. In 2008, a child was given a 7-year sentence for the heinous crime of stealing a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine. In the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, up to two-thirds of detainees accused of crimes were imprisoned without any court authorization. Back in 2002, Amnesty International released a report about Mongolian prisons which outlined the terrible treatment of inmates. It is not unusual for a detainee to starve to death.

Even this horrid state of affairs pales in comparison to the Mongolian prison system in the early 20th century. In 1918, Roy Chapman Andrews visited Urga, Mongolia, and visited the town’s jail. What he encountered became the stuff of legend. While it is common for prisoners to be confined to small cells with overcrowding a constant issue, nothing compares to the dreadful fate endured by prisoners at Urga.

Andrews was astonished to find that inmates were effectively trapped in coffins. Prisoners were stuffed in 3 x 4-foot wooden boxes kept in Urga’s dark dungeons. The prison was surrounded by 15-foot high sharpened timbers, and the captives were given food via a 6-inch hole in the box. The rations they received were meager to say the least, and their human waste was washed every 2-3 weeks. The cells were so small that prisoners couldn’t lie down or sit properly and to make matters worse; they were handcuffed.

These boxes were supposedly for people awaiting execution, but a high percentage of them died in their ready-made coffins. The temperatures in Urga drop below zero in winter, so it was common for inmates to freeze to death. If they lived long enough, their limbs atrophied from lack of movement.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
The Lower Chamber of the Mamertine. Ancient Origins

5 – The Mamertine

The Mamertine prison was one of the most brutal in the ancient world. It was created during the era of Roman Kings sometime between 640 and 616 BC. It is located at the foot of Capitoline Hill in Rome and was the only prison in the city at the time. According to Livy, it was the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marius, who ordered the construction of the prison. The Romans were the first to introduce imprisonment as a form of punishment, and the Mamertine remained in use for centuries.

It is worth noting that the Mamertine was very different to the prisons of today. It was located underground and consisted of upper and lower cell floors. You could only access the lower cell via a hole in the upper cell’s floor. The upper prison is trapezoidal in shape, and there is a plaque naming famous prisoners and their cause of death. There is another plaque featuring the names of saints and martyrs along with the people who tortured them. St. Peter and St. Paul are both said to have died in the Mamertine.

The lower room is called Tullianum, after its builder, Servius Tullius, and is located in a sewer system below the city. This part of the Mamertine was designed for the criminals set to be executed whereas the upper part was for torture. According to Sallust, the Tullianum was 12 feet underground and vile because of the filth and stench. Prisoners in the Tullianum were usually executed via strangulation or else they were left to starve to death. There was also an iron door which was opened when the Romans wanted to toss dead bodies into the River Tiber.

There is a lengthy list of famous individuals imprisoned and/or executed in the Tullianum. These include King Jugurtha of Numidia who died of starvation in 104 BC, Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, who was imprisoned there before his execution in 46 BC, and Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, who was one of the main members of the Catiline Conspiracy and executed in 63 AD.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
Depiction of interior of HMS Jersey. History Things

6 – HMS Jersey

The HMS Jersey was used as a prison ship by the British during the War of Independence. Conditions were so bad that it earned the nickname, HMS Hell. The HMS Jersey was built in 1736 and was used in several battles during the middle of the 18th century. It was converted into a hospital ship in 1771 before becoming a prison ship in early 1780. During the war, the British troops that occupied New York used decommissioned warships to hold prisoners.

Not only did they imprison revolutionaries, they even punished people who refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. In total, an estimated 11,000 people died aboard these ships during the war due to malnutrition or disease. Even amidst this grim backdrop, the HMS Jersey was known for its abominable conditions.

In the middle of 1776, General Howe invaded Long Island with a large fleet and 34,000 men. He defeated the small band of rebels led by George Washington, but the Revolutionary general and his men escaped across the East River. By mid-September however, Washington’s army had been pushed off the island as the British controlled Manhattan. Although the American forces enjoyed victories at Trenton and Princeton later in 1776, the British remained in New York until November 1783.

The British captured tens of thousands of people, and soon, space ran out in their land-based jails. They began loading prisoners onto ships in Wallabout Bay, and the HMS Jersey was the worst of the loss. It was common for the ship to hold over 1,000 prisoners and approximately one dozen died every day. The main causes of death were diseases such as smallpox and dysentery, as well as torture and starvation.

The HMS Hell as it became known, was seen as a powerful symbol of British tyranny by the Patriots. The inmates were so hot that most of them stripped naked and in some cases, dead bodies remained undiscovered for up to 10 days. If you somehow survived the other horrors, there was the possibility of being eaten alive by rats. At the end of the war in 1783, there were only 1,400 survivors amongst the entire fleet of prison ships.

Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times
Hoa Lo Prison. City Pass Guide

7 – Hoa Lo Prison

Also known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ or ‘Hell’s Hole,’ the Hoa Lo Prison was bad even by the standards of the Vietnam War. The prison by built by the French in the late 19th century and was completed in 1901. The population of the Hoa Lo swelled rapidly within a few years, and there were 600 prisoners by 1913. The number continued to grow so by 1954, there were 2,000 inmates, and overcrowding was an obvious problem.

Even at that stage, the prison was notorious for the sub-human conditions it provided, but it gained its reputation during the Vietnam War. The first American POW to be housed in the Hoa Lo was Everett Alvarez Jr. in August 1964. The Vietnamese made no attempt to improve the terrible conditions. They opened a new area of the prison for the growing number of POWs in 1967, and it was given the nickname ‘Little Vegas’ by the inmates.

The American pilots captured and placed in the prison were usually in bad shape by the time they arrived, and things got worse for them very quickly. The North Vietnamese Army used the prison as one of its main sites for interrogating and torturing captured servicemen. They hoped to break the spirit of the American POWs and get them to reveal important military secrets. Torture methods such as lengthy solitary confinement, beatings, irons and rope bindings were used in contravention of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949.

Inmates of the Hoa Lo were kept behind 20-foot high walls with barbed wire and glass on top. While the North Vietnamese claimed that conditions in their prisons were no worse than those endured by their troops in South Vietnamese prisons, conditions at the Hoa Lo nonetheless improved from late 1969 onwards. More prisoners were moved there in late 1970. With more comrades-at-arms to talk to, morale gradually improved. The prison remained in use after the Vietnam War, but in the mid-1990s, most of it was demolished. There is a small piece of the prison open today, but it operates as a museum.


Sources For Further Reading:

Open Democracy – Romania’s History Wars: On The Sufferings Of Fascist Saints

Insight Crime – From Black Serpents to PCC: A Brazil Gang Myth Turned Nightmare

Insight Crime – São Paulo, Paraguay and Beyond: The PCC’s Growing Power

The Guardian – Inside World’s Most Bizarre Prison

Amnesty – Brazil: Carandiru Massacre Trial Must End Long Legacy Of Impunity

Haaretz – Archaeologists Reveal Secrets of Roman Prison That Held Both Christian Saints and Jewish Rebels

Ancient Origins – The Infamous Mamertine Prison and the Supposed Incarceration of Saint Peter

College de France Lectures – A Dispatch From Rome: The Mamertine Prison

History Things – The HMS Jersey: Gruesome Revolutionary Prison Ship

Smithsonian Magazine – The Grisly History of Brooklyn’s Revolutionary War Martyrs

Abandoned Spaces – The infamous Hỏa Lò Prison: Jokingly dubbed “Hanoi Hilton”

Politico – I Spent Seven Years as a Vietnam POW. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ Is No Trump Hotel.