Although prison is one of those places that none of us would ever want to see in person, it’s still a pretty fascinating place with its own rules, culture, and features. What few people realize is that the world’s prisons struggle heavily with financial challenges, including paying for food, healthcare, and maintenance. Many of these institutions last for years in their intended form, but some have been renovated and now serve as tourist attractions.

Due to the overcrowding of inmates, modern prisons have had to seek more efficient ways to solve both humane and economic problems. These incredible structures are notorious in their own right – not just for the hideous fame of the occupants.

1. Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

Managed By: Cuban Government
Number Of Inmates: 36*
Highlight: The most controversial in the world

One of the most famous prisons in the world, Guantánamo Bay, was established after the horrific radical extremist attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. It is also the most problematic prison in the world, due to the many alleged controversies surrounding its treatment of prisoners, among other things.

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba @Kathleen T. Rhem/commons.wikimedia.orgGuantanamo Bay, Cuba @Kathleen T. Rhem/commons.wikimedia.org

Only 36 of the approximately 780 detainees remain in the prison’s facilities now. Numerous organizations have denounced the treatment of inmates within the prison, including the United Nations and Amnesty International. Without a doubt, Guantánamo Bay is the most controversial prison in existence.

2. Robben, South Africa

Managed By: South African Government
Number Of Inmates: N/A
Highlight: Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned there

Robben Island, located in Mesa Bay off the coast of South Africa, housed many inmates while it was active from 1961 until 1991, the year it ceased to serve as a prison for political prisoners. In 1996, Robben closed its doors permanently. Undoubtedly, the most famous of its prisoners was Nelson Mandela.

Robben, Sudáfrica @Anne Martin/Youtube.comRobben, Sudáfrica @Anne Martin/Youtube.com

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African President was one of the most important figures of the 20th century. After being unjustly sentenced to jail because of his political status, Mandela was incarcerated in Robben Prison for 18 of his 27 years in prison. Robben is now a museum with symbolic significance, as it represents the history of the South African nation.

3. Island of the Devil, France

Managed By: French Government
Number Of Inmates: N/A
Highlight: It housed famous prisoners like Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charrière

Of the coast of French Guyana is where you can find Devil’s Island, the dismal rock on which a penitentiary was once located. From 1852 to 1938, the main inhabitants of Devil’s Island were prisoners. More than 80,000 inmates passed through the island, though many did not leave it due to the terrible conditions in which they lived.

Isla del Diablo, Francia @Christian F5UII/commons.wikimedia.orgIsla del Diablo, Francia @Christian F5UII/commons.wikimedia.org

Among the prisoners who passed through Devil’s Island were famous soldier Alfred Dreyfus and writer Henri Charrière. The latter wrote about the island in his book Papillon, in which he described his ingenious escape. Charrière used a bag of coconuts to survive the terrible currents back from Devil’s Island to the mainland of France, where he declared himself a free man.

4. San Quentin, USA

Managed By: California State Government
Number Of Inmates: 3,082*
Highlight: The oldest and most-dangerous prison in California

San Quentin State Prison, located in Marin County, California, is the oldest penitentiary in the state, as well as the most dangerous. Its reputation comes from the fact a lot of criminally delinquent, violent characters are securely confined behind its walls.

San Quentin Prison, USA Jitze Couperus/commons.wikimedia.orgSan Quentin Prison, USA Jitze Couperus/commons.wikimedia.org

San Quentin Prison is also the only prison in the state of California to have both a death row and an execution chamber. It was founded in 1852, which makes it historically important to the state, no matter how controversial. Johnny Cash fans will know San Quentin–it was the prison in which Cash, the Man in Black, recorded one of his most famous live performances.

5. Ciudad De Barrios Prison, El Salvador

Managed By: El Salvador Government
Number Of Inmates: 2,500
Highlight: De Barrios confines only inmates from the infamous gang Mara Salvatrucha

The Ciudad de Barrios prison in El Salvador is famous for being the place in which members of the deadly Mara Salvatrucha gang are exclusively confined. Originally built to hold a population of 800, the prison houses approximately 2,500 inmates behind bars, and, with one guard for every 50 prisoners, it is difficult for the prison’s administration to maintain control.


Behind the walls of this prison, the inmates seem to have more control than the guards, which is why Ciudad de Barrios is also considered one of the most violent penitentiaries in the world. Prisoners do criminal business openly inside the jail, and the objective of Ciudad de Barrios appears to be loose confinement, rather than actual punishment and “penance.”

6. Tower of London, England

Managed By: The Crown
Number Of Inmates: N/A
Highlight: There have been many rumors, some of which are credible, about the prison being haunted

No trip to London is complete without a visit to the landmark Tower of London. Now called the Royal Palace and Fortress of His Majesty, the Tower remains one of the most famous former prisons in history. It now is a tourist spot that fascinates all who dare come to see it. Several famous figures were locked up in the Tower of London, including former Royals-brought-low Sir Thomas Moore and Anne Boleyn.

Torre de Londres, Inglaterra ©Joanna Lynch /Shutterstock.comTorre de Londres, Inglaterra ©Joanna Lynch /Shutterstock.com

In addition to its historical prominence, the Tower of London is also said to be haunted. This is one of the reasons why tourists from all over the world come to get a glimpse of some would-be ghosts. There are many stories about phantom sightings, and some visitors have even claimed to have seen the specter of Anne Boleyn.

7. Justice Center of Leoben, Austria

Managed By: Austrian Government
Number Of Inmates: 205*
Highlight: The most luxurious prison in Austria

Realistically, none of us would like to be in prison, but the Leoben Justice Center, if only for a second, might make us want to serve a few nights within its luxurious walls. Leoben was designed by the architect Josef Hohensinn and completed, at a cost of $25 million, in November 2004.

Centro de Justicia Leoben, Austria @Daniela Ebner/commons.wikimedia.orgCentro de Justicia Leoben, Austria @Daniela Ebner/commons.wikimedia.org

The Leoben Justice Center is certainly one of the most beautiful prisons in the world. In addition to having everything necessary for the inmates’ stay to be comfortable, it features a gym and basketball court. The cells, if we can call them that, have a balcony, desk, and television. This is more of a hotel than a place of serious punishment.

8. New Mexico State Penitentiary, USA

Managed By: New Mexico Government
Number Of Inmates: 790*
Highlight: The infamous riots of 1980

The New Mexico State Penitentiary, located in southern Santa Fe County, consists of four facilities: Level V (opened in 1985), Level VI (also opened in 1985), Level II (opened in 1990), and Level VI, which is super-maximum security and contains Death Row.

The Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM), USA @Ken Piorkowski/commons.wikimedia.orgThe Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM), USA @Ken Piorkowski/commons.wikimedia.org

Despite all the security in the prison, the New Mexico Penitentiary was the site of the most violent prison riot in the United States in 1980. During the turmoil, inmates took over the facilities and took twelve guards hostage. Thirty-three inmates were killed during this massive riot, which caused controversy all across America, as people wondered whether prisons were, truly, as secure as they claimed.

9. Nara Prison, Japan

Managed By: Hoshino Resorts
Number Of Inmates: N/A
Highlight: The oldest prison in Japan, soon to become a luxury hotel

Nara Prison, the oldest prison in Japan, was built in 1901 and opened as a juvenile penitentiary in 1909. It closed in 2017 and has since become a popular tourist spot where visitors can appreciate what it was like to be imprisoned in historical Japan.

Prisión de Nara, Japón ©Takashi Images/Shutterstock.comPrisión de Nara, Japón ©Takashi Images/Shutterstock.com

But this former prison will soon attract tourists for a different reason, as there are plans to convert Nara into a luxury hotel. Hoshino Resorts has taken private ownership of the prison complex, and it will transform it into a hotel from which people actually don’t want to escape, unlike Nara’s prison past.

10. Attica Correctional Center, New York

Managed By: New York Government
Number Of Inmates: 2,253*
Highlight: The most violent prison in New York

Not everything is as glamorous in New York as it is in the Big Apple (though NYC does have its dark side, too). New York State’s scariest inhabitants can be seen at its maximum security penitentiary in Attica. This prison has been home to some of the worst criminals in the United States, and it is no surprise that ACC is known as the state’s most violent jail.

Attica Correctional Facility, USA @Jayu from Harrisburg, PA, U.S.A./commons.wikimedia.orgAttica Correctional Facility, USA @Jayu from Harrisburg, PA, U.S.A./commons.wikimedia.org

One of the most frightening episodes in the history of Attica Correctional Center took place in 1971 when there was a riot inside the prison. During this bloody conflict, prisoners took forty-two staff members hostage. The riot ended four days later after forty-three lives were lost and millions in damage (both physical and reputational) done.

11. Butyrka Prison, Russia

Managed By: Russian Government (Formerly USSR)
Number Of Inmates: 2,000*
Highlight: The most over-populated prison in Russia

The largest remand prison in Moscow, Butyrka was built in 1879. It goes without saying that this is a place in which no human being would ever want to find themselves. Despite its size, this prison has a serious overcrowding problem. Its cells are designed for ten people, yet this ten-person capacity has been stretched, by Russia’s government, to one hundred.

Butyrka Prison, Russia @Stanislav Kozlovskiy/commons.wikimedia.orgButyrka Prison, Russia @Stanislav Kozlovskiy/commons.wikimedia.org

Because of the prison’s overcrowding, health problems, including the proliferation of many diseases, abound. Butyrka Prison, which has been in operation for more than 200 years, has been home to famous figures such as Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

12. Rikers, New York City, USA

Managed By: NYC Government
Number Of Inmates: 5,558*
Highlight: One of the most dangerous prisons in the world

Rikers Island, located between Queens and the Bronx in New York City, is considered one of the world’s most dangerous prisons. It is not only a jail;  it also serves as a mental institution, which means that around 40% of its inmates have moderate to severe mental illnesses. There are nearly 70 “violent incidents” per 1,000 inmates a month at Rikers, says Politico. 

Rikers, Nueva York, USA @Sfoskett /commons.wikimedia.orgRikers, Nueva York, USA @Sfoskett /commons.wikimedia.org

The prison has a budget of $860 million per year, and the annual cost of maintaining an inmate in New York City is approximately $556,539 per person. The infamous, deadly chaos at Rikers Prison has led the New York City Council to vote to close this prison by 2026.

13. Otago Prison, New Zealand

Managed By: New Zealand Government
Number Of Inmates: 335*
Highlight: The comfiest prison in New Zealand

Everything is beautiful in New Zealand: the sunsets, the mountains, the rivers, and, apparently, even the prisons. An example of this penitentiary beauty is Otago Prison, located near the city of Milton. Otago is famous for being the cushiest jail in New Zealand.

Prisión de Otago, Nueva Zelanda. /hawkins.co.nzPrisión de Otago, Nueva Zelanda. /hawkins.co.nz

This prison is so comfortable that many call it “Milton-Hilton” because it has a gym, library, and plasma screen TVs in common areas. Inmates can even, circumstances-depending, have a television in their jail cells. Otago, in a smart recidivism-reduction tactic,  also provides education to inmates in various trades so that they can develop professionally and seek employment when they leave.

14. Arthur Road Prison, India

Managed By: Indian Government
Number Of Inmates: 1,074*
Highlight: The largest, most overcrowded prison in Mumbai

Arthur Road Prison, also known as Mumbai Central Prison, is the largest, oldest, and most populous prison in the city of Mumbai, India. It is infamous for having a serious overcrowding problem. Arthur Road was built for 800 people, but behind its walls, there are more than 2,000 inmates.

Arthur Road Jail, India /hindustantimes.comArthur Road Jail, India /hindustantimes.com

Unfortunately, Arthur Road Prison is also notorious for its violent incidents. There have been numerous attacks between gangs, which led the authorities to restructure Arthur Road by gang affiliation. Gangs are kept in different sections of the prison, so as to minimize potential bloody feuds.

15. Alcatraz, San Francisco, USA

Managed By: California Government
Number Of Inmates: 0
Highlight: The most famous prison on the West Coast

Thanks to the magic of Hollywood, Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the world. There were once as many as 1,576 inmates there, and it was a functioning, feared pen from 1934 to 1963. Many of the most famous criminals in the country, including mobster Al Capone, were imprisoned behind its walls.

Penitenciaria de Alcatraz ©MintImages/Shutterstock.comPenitenciaria de Alcatraz ©MintImages/Shutterstock.com

During the 29 years that it was open, prisoners attempted fourteen escapes, although these were always hard-fought, given the geography of the island. If you wanted to make it out of Alcatraz alive before your sentence was up, you had to know how to swim long distances in often-rough, sometimes-freezing Pacific Ocean currents. Even today, the only way in or out of Alcatraz, now a tourist attraction, is by ferry.

16. Gldani Prison, Georgia

Managed By: Georgia Government
Number Of Inmates: Unknown
Highlight: Gldani prison scandal that will go down in history

Gldani Prison is infamous for being the place where a series of attacks on inmates by prison guards took place around a decade ago. On September 18, 2012, a video showing the terrifying events appeared on all television channels in Georgia. People were stunned at Gldani’s violence and the way that the inmates seemed to be running the jail. Once these videos leaked, it was clear that these attacks were a long-time coming and something needed to change.

Paata Vardanashvili/commons.wikimedia.orgPaata Vardanashvili/commons.wikimedia.org

After the atrocities committed inside the Gldani prison were revealed, there were demonstrations in several Georgian cities, during which the population demanded justice for the victims. While violence in Gldani prison was once considered “normal,” after the scandal, the government cracked down on inmates and brought those responsible to justice. Now, Gldani functions, for the most part, the way a regular prison should.

17. Halden Prison, Norway

Managed By: Government of Norway
Number Of Inmates: 250*
Highlight: One of Norway’s most hotel-like prisons

Halden Prison is located by Oslo near the Swedish border, and its proximity to a major city means that one would least expect it to be maximum security. But, that expectation is incorrect. In this prison, there are no bars on the windows, the inmates have cooking workshops, and instrument lessons are taught in a recording studio on the grounds.

Justis- og politidepartementet/commons.wikimedia.orgJustis- og politidepartementet/commons.wikimedia.org

Although Halden Prison’s approach is very different from that of conventional prisons, it is difficult to argue against its results. Norway has a criminal recidivism rate of 20%, one of the lowest in the world.

18. Petak Island Prison, Russia

Managed by: Russian Government
Number of inmates: 200*
Highlight: Russia’s most-feared prison

Going to jail is not a walk in the park in any country, but in Russia, it is definitely not a joke. Take, for example, the prison on the island of Petak, where inmates spend most of their stay confined to small two-person cells. For just 2 hours a day, each prisoner is allowed to walk around in a cage.

Prisión de la isla de Petak, Rusia. ©Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock.comPrisión de la isla de Petak, Rusia. ©Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock.com

But not only the prisoners are isolated: the island of Petak itself is also alone in the middle of a river, which is, in turn, in the center of a forest, and the only way to enter or leave is by boat. This prison is the most feared in Russia, as all this isolation causes severe mental problems for its inmates. No one has ever managed to escape.

19. Vladimir Central Prison, Russia

Managed by: Russian Government
Number of inmates: 1,220*
Highlight: The largest prison in Russia

Vladimir Central Prison is famous for being the largest penitentiary in Russia, and it is infamous for having both overcrowding and disease problems. The maximum security prison opened its doors in 1783, and most inmates are serving sentences ranging from 10 years to life.

Vladimir Central Prison, Russia ©A.Savin/Wikimedia CommonsVladimir Central Prison, Russia ©A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Central Prison is also a building of historical significance, as it was established during the Russian Empire. It was mandated by Catherine II (Catherine the Great) to imprison political prisoners. Within its walls, the son of Joseph Stalin, Vasily Iosifovich Stalin, was imprisoned.

20. HMP Belmarsh, U.K.

Managed by: U.K. Government
Number of inmates: 792*
Highlight: The most violent prison in the United Kingdom

HMP Belmarsh is known for keeping the worst of the worst behind bars. It mostly imprisons those involved in major crimes, particularly those types of criminal endeavors that undermine England’s national security. Also within this prison is the HSU (High Security Unit), which is considered the most secure in the UK.

HMP Belmarsh, UK. /londonnewsonline.co.ukHMP Belmarsh, UK. /londonnewsonline.co.uk

All this security is necessary, as the inmates serving their sentence within Belmarsh are not particularly sanguine and happy to be there. The levels of violence inside this prison are very high, with 49 attempted attacks on staff and 58 among the inmates themselves.

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