The 3 Most Notorious Prisons In The U.S. Will Give You Chills

America has more prisoners than any other developed country in the world, and last week, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. A look inside the United States' most notorious prisons will give anyone chills — they're cold, hard, and devoid of color. Obama called for major prison reform, including reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and addressing issues like sexual assault and overcrowding. Keeping so many people locked up is extremely costly, too — Obama said on Twitter that the U.S. spends $80 billion on the prison system each year, which could instead, for example, be used to double the salary of every high school teacher in America.

The more than two million Americans behind bars face daily struggles just to stay safe, stay sane, and get basic necessities. Women in prison have to deal with even more issues, since the prison system mostly runs on gender-neutral policies that ignore women's specific needs, such as sanitary pads and toilet paper. It's hard to imagine life in a maximum security prison, as detainees hardly get to spend time outside of their cells, much less outside in the open air, and have minimal contact with other humans. And some prisons are much worse than others.

Here's a glimpse of what life inside America's three most notorious prisons is like.


The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado (known as the ADX) is America's toughest prison. Until recently, little was known about what took place in the country's only federal supermax, but a lawsuit filed by 11 ADX inmates in 2012 against the Bureau of Prisons has revealed just how harsh life in the ADX can be. The prisoners allege that the prison isn't properly diagnosing or treating inmates with mental illness; the lawsuit was initiated by the 2010 suicide of inmate José Martin Vega.

The ADX can house up to 500 prisoners, and currently is home to Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber). According to The New York Times, ADX prisoners live in 12-by-7-foot concrete cells with sliding metal doors, a single window four inches wide, a sink/toilet combo, and an automated shower. Most inmates are only allotted a maximum of 10 hours a week outside of their cells, in a windowless indoor gym or an individual cage in the outdoor rec yard. Even meals are served in their cells. Robert Hood, a former ADX warden, told The New York Times:

This place is not designed for humanity. When it’s 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can’t even see the Rocky Mountains — let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.

San Quentin

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San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, is home to the largest death row in the U.S., with 708 of its more than 3,000 prisoners awaiting execution. While San Quentin is less bleak than the ADX, but it's still a harsh prison. Individual cells are 48 square feet and are shut off by rows of black bars. Regular prisoners are allowed outside of their cell more regularly, and have more contact with other inmates and guards, but death row inmates only get to spend five hours a day outside their tiny cell, and they're only allowed to shower every other day. Mental illness is also a major problem at San Quentin, and a court-appointed monitor determined that about three dozen death row prisoners needed inpatient mental illness care. The prison is currently working on opening a 40-bed hospital for the mentally ill.

Sing Sing

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Sing Sing is an infamous maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, operated by the New York State Department of Corrections. It's a dangerous place, both for the incarcerated and the workers. The prison holds more than 2,000 inmates today, and is known for being one of America's toughest prisons (the electric chair was used for executions until it was banned in 1972). Ted Conover's book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing revealed how dangerous life in the prison can be: There are frequent gang fights, as well as violence between guards and inmates. Conover also describes the decrepit building, saying the corridors and stairways are in disrepair, and the roof often leaks when it rains, making it even more depressing to be locked up there. A report on the facility by The Correctional Association of New York found multiple problems, including limitations on access to medical care, verbal harassment and physical confrontation between staff and inmates and among inmates, gang activity, and use of contraband drugs.

Living in these notorious prisons is no walk in the park. Obviously, not all U.S. prisons and jails are as bleak as the ADX, San Quentin, and Sing Sing, but they offer a glimpse into the American prison system's harsh operations.

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