Modern-day prisons are not for the faint hearted, but they are NOTHING compared to prisons from history. Yes, these walls are no stranger to screams of terror, endless violence, and things so awful you cannot even imagine. So get ready to hear tales that’ll make your blood curdle, and haunt your nightmares in the 10 Bizarre Prisons in History…
10 Bizarre Prisons in History
From 1949 until 1951, this Stalinist Romanian prison was home to an infamous experiment
known as the Pitesti Experiment.
According to Open Democracy, this experiment was actually started by inmates of the prison
itself, who had been jailed as anti-Communist facists. They formed the ODCC, or the Organisation
of Prisoners with Communist Convictions, and went about “re-educating” other inmates
in the most horrifying ways possible. This included torturing other inmates by making
them stare at lightbulbs, making them repeatedly headbutt each other, even electrocution. They
were also kept in squalid conditions on purpose, and forced to perform humiliating tasks, such
as baptisms involving sewage. This would then break other prisoners into joining the ODCC
and renouncing their anti-communist tendencies. It’s worth noting this was fully supported
by the director of the prison itself.
This was eventually stopped in 1952 after a regime shift in the country, but by that
point over 700 prisoners had been through the horrific process, 30 of whom died.
Labelling Italy’s Mamertine “prison” is a bit of a misnomer really, as it was more
similar to a hybrid of a 12-foot deep underground dungeon and sewage system.
Built in the 7th Century BC, the Mamertine was essentially two dark, dank cells stacked
on top of each other. There was no natural light, due to them being subterranean – in
fact the only way to get out or into the lower cell was via a hole in the ground of the upper
one. Sallust, an ancient historian, described it as having a fearsome darkness and stench.
Prisoners were often put into the lower chamber before execution; failing that, they left
them to rot and starve there. This complex was within a sewage system.
Legend has it that St Peter and Paul were actually held here, but did not die there
as they were later crucified. For this reason it’s part of various pilgrimages, and has
since been converted into a church, memorialising the abject horror the prisoners of the Mamertine
3. Urga Prison, Mongolia
In 1916, naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, future director of American Museum of Natural History,
travelled across Asia. He documented his experiences in his book Across Mongolian Plains in 1921,
during which he mentions witnessing a prison he described as “one of the worst in the
In it, he mentions seeing rooms full of coffins that were four feet long and two feet wide.
Andrews explains that it was these tombs that were the prisoners’ cells, which were designed
so that the prisoners couldn’t fully lay down OR sit up comfortably. There was just
a six inch wide hole in the coffins where they are given food – that is, to quote Andrews,
“if they remembered to give them any”. They were also handcuffed and their limbs
would shrivel away due to a lack of use.
While the length of the stay in these caskets varied, and would often be to hold prisoners
before they were executed, many of them unsurprisingly died in this horrific captivity.
4.Camp Sumter Military Prison, Georgia
Created during the American Civil War, in February of 1864, Camp Sumter Military Prison
was the largest Confederate prison in the whole conflict. Also known as Andersonville,
Camp Sumter was built to hold 10,000 people – but held over 30,000, which gives you a
hint at the problems it faced…
The prison was supposed to be built rapidly, but the price of lumber was hugely inflated
at this time, which meant it was never fully built properly. As a result, there were no
barracks to keep them in, and instead the prisoners were open to the elements. Some
had shanties made of blankets and bits of wood, others dug holes in the ground for themselves.
The camp had a creek with water running through it, but this was soon contaminated with sewage,
making the prisoners extremely vulnerable to disease. There was also very little food
due to the Confederates losing supplies, and what food they had was of extremely low quality
with next to no proper preparation.
By the time the prison was closed with the end of the war, 13,000 inmates had died as
a result of these conditions, and its commander, Henry Wirz, was executed for their murder.
Over 7000 inmates lived within the walls of Brazil’s Carandiru penitentiary, where there
was only space for a third of that. As a result, there was one guard per every HUNDRED prisoners,
so things were bound to go wrong.
As soon as prisoners arrive, they are told to “rent” their cells. Even those lucky
enough to have left the prison still apparently owed back payments. They actually tend to
have a fair bit of freedom and control and can get whatever they want through illicit
means, including mobile phones. There’s even a prison within the prison, called the
“yellow”, as those in there rarely see sunlight.
However, it’s most famous for the results of a riot after a game of soccer. 300 police
officers stormed the jail, and killed over 100 of the prisoners. Allegedly this included
prisoners who had surrendered or who were trying to hide, often at close range. In 2014,
73 of the police officers were convicted, some of whom were sentenced to 156 years in
jail. The prison was later demolished in 2002.
Ten miles off the coast of French Guiana lay one of the deadliest and most notorious jails
in the whole of the French penal colony – Ile du Diable, or Devil’s Island.
Initially used as a leper colony, soon political prisoners were sent to the island too, during
its use between 1852 to 1953. The prison was pretty much the only building on the whole
island, surrounded by shark infested waters, which were often the downfall of any seafaring
would-be escapees. The convicts were forced to provide labour in all conditions while
shackled – some were even exposed to the elements all the time with no roof on their very small
cells. This meant they were open to being attacked by animals on the island too, like
vampire bats and rats. Solitary confinement was also often in complete pitch black.
Devil’s Island saw 80,000 prisoners come and go, though the vast majority never got
to leave the island as thousands upon thousands died of various diseases as well as the poor
diet. The general public can visit other islands in the penal colony, but venturing to Devil’s
Island is strictly taboo.
It’s the late 18th century in America, at the height of the war for independence against
the British, who were occupying New York City at the time. Prisons of war or rebels had
to imprisoned by the British somewhere, as they numbered by the thousands, so the British
used warships that were docked at shore to keep them on, as prison ships. The worst of
these was the ship nicknamed “Hell” – the HMS Jersey. It transpires that name is horrifyingly
This ship kept more than 1000 prisoners onboard, where they were tortured, starved and exposed
to a deadly combination of diseases. The ship was meant for 400 sailors. The prisoners had
nowhere to even sit or lie. Since the vast majority of the prisoners were kept below
deck, there was no sunlight and little ventilation. In the summer it was deathly warm; in the
winter, unspeakably cold.
Those onboard the ship were actually given a choice – one way out was to betray their
country and join the British Army. But the many thousands that died clearly didn’t
take or weren’t even given that choice, as the number of people who died onboard the
Jersey and other prison ships was almost three times the amount of patriots who died in armed
8. Hoa Lo Prison, Vietnam
Hoa Lo Prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, but it was anything
but luxury. A prison camp for American Prisoners of War, the conditions at Hoa Lo deteriorated
rapidly with the increase of prisoners. The Vietnamese government used extreme methods
of torture in order to extract military secrets from the US soldiers, including rope bindings,
beatings, and solitary confinement.
As well as this, prisoners’ legs were often strapped in irons or stocks that were left
from the French Colonial era of the prison. These were so tight, that they often cut into
the skin, causing lacerations, and infections. They were also forced to defecate where they
lay, and left to rot with the rats and cockroaches. Prisoners were rarely fed as starvation was
used as a form of torture, and when they were fed, they were often given watery soups with
faeces and rocks.
George McKnight, a 6ft2 US soldier, was forced to lay in a 4ft trench with his hands tied
behind his back for 34 days, as torture for trying to escape Hoa Lo.
The Vietnamese Government still denies the wrongdoings to these POWs to this day.
9.Tadmur Prison, Syria
Built by the French in the 1930s, Tadmur Prison is located in the heart of the Syrian Desert,
and was the place that Syrian Prime Minister Hafez-al Assad sent thousands of political
dissidents to be humiliated, tortured, and executed between 1971 and 2000.
The prison is best known for it’s 1980 massacre. After a failed attempt at assassinating Assad,
members of the Defence Brigade flew to Tamdur and their soldiers went from cell to cell,
shooting prisoners with machine guns. An Amnesty International report estimates that up to
1000 people were murdered in just minutes, most of which were supporters of the Muslim
Brotherhood. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave outside of the prison.
Cells had windows covered with barbed wire and prisoners were under permanent surveillance
and not allowed to make eye-contact with each other.
On arrival, new inmates were thrown a “reception party”, where they were whipped mercilessly,
forced into car tyres and beaten. Some prisoners never even made it through that reception.
When inmates would cry out for medical help for dying prisoners, they were told “only
call us to collect bodies”.
10. Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Holmesburg Prison was opened in 1896, to help relieve overcrowding at the nearby Moyamensing
Prison. Much like other entries on this list, this prison was no stranger to torture, corruption,
In 1938, over half of inmates went on a hunger strike, because the food was that bad. Twenty-five
of these were identified as leaders of the strike, and taken to a building called the
Klondike – a narrow cell block lined with radiators and steam pipes which, in the peak
of an August heatwave, peaked at nearly 200 degrees. Four of these men died with injuries
pertaining to severe beatings and being boiled alive.
The prison has also been the setting of many murders, including that of the warden and
his deputy in 1973, and a bloody riot in 1970, in which prisoners were armed with meat cleavers
and boning knives. During a lawsuit that followed, attention was drawn to the filthy and overcrowded
conditions and severe beatings that inmates had to endure.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, prisoners were also subjected to medical experiments,
where Dr Albert Kligman exposed participants to herpes, staphylococcus, radioactive isotopes,
chemicals that caused skin blistering, psychoactive drugs, and carcinogens.