Prisons have held lawbreakers for as long as there have been laws to break. Facilities come and go as centuries pass, but the most notoriously scary historical prisons tend to haunt the pages of our history books with tales of unspeakable suffering, violence, and crime. They contributed to war efforts, impacted revolutions, and affected the history of the cities and countries that surrounded them.
The concept of prisons as we know them today is relatively modern. In antiquity, jails served less as places of penitence and more as a purgatory before the final judgment of guilt, which was often punished either by enslavement or execution. Before the mega jails and super-maxes of today, historical prisons took on many forms, from isolated islands to underground dungeons. Excluding any prison that is currently open and also the horrifically depressing sub-genre of concentration camps, this list reveals some of the scariest prisons in history.
Pitești Prison, RomaniaPhoto: Biruitorul / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Pitesti was a Communist prison built in Romania, most famous for its intense and brutal brainwashing experiments. Operating from 1949-1951, the Pitesti Experiment attempted to "re-educate" wealthy intellectuals, bourgeois landowners, religious rebels, and political dissidents through psychological torture. Prisoners were malnourished and subjected to intentionally humiliating punishments.
In an effort to get prisoners to turn on one another, guards made prisoners torture each other by spitting and urinating in each other's mouths, among other even more disgusting things.
The Mamertine, Italy
In Ancient Rome, the Mamertine's violence wasn't just brutal – it was biblical. A dank underground jailhouse, the Mamertine played host to two of Christianity's most famous characters. St. Peter and St. Paul; both spent time locked up in the dungeons of Mamertine, imprisoned there by Roman Emperor Nero.
In use since the 8th century BCE, the prison contained two floors of underground cells, one on top of the other, with the lower levels only accessible through holes in the upper levels. After torturous treatment and lack of food led to the deaths of many of the prisoners, guards disposed of their bodies in the Cloaca Maxima, AKA the Roman sewer.
Prison At Urga, MongoliaPhoto: Stéphane Passet/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
When explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, future director of the American Museum of Natural History, arrived at the prison in Urga, Mongolia, in 1918, he couldn't believe his eyes. Taken on a tour of the town's jail, he saw that the accommodations for prisoners in Urga were worse than any he had ever seen or studied before – because the prisoners essentially lived in coffins.
Housed in four-foot by three-foot boxes, prisoners could reach through a single six-inch hole to receive their food rations or blankets in the winter, when they got any, which was rare. Guards only cleaned the boxes every few weeks and as such, a prisoner very rarely saw the outside of their "cell." Prisoners' limbs atrophied from lack of movement, although many didn't live long enough to see this happen.
Devil's Island, French Guiana
Potentially the most feared penal colony in history, Devil's Island saw 60,000 prisoners sail in its direction and only 2,000 make it out alive. An isolated island off the coast of French Army Guiana in the Atlantic ocean, Napoleon III and the French chose the island in 1852 because it was nearly impossible to escape. Guards worked prisoners nearly to death during the day, building unending roads to nowhere and clearing trees. At night, they were shackled and left in the dark to be bitten by vampire bats that waited in the rafters.
Some prisoners were kept in "bear pits" – holes dug into the ground and covered at the top by iron bars. The island's two most well-known residents were Alfred Dreyfus, a French Captain falsely convicted of treason, and Henri Charrière, an inmate who escaped the island and wrote a memoir about his time there. The book, Papillon, was adapted into a movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.