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10 Most Dangerous Prisons in the United States in 2024

The United States houses some of the most notorious and dangerous prisons in the world, known for their high levels of violence, inmates, and challenging conditions. These facilities have gained infamy for their history of riots, escapes, and harsh environments, reflecting the darker side of the American correctional system. Let’s uncover the interesting details of these prisons. 

List of 10 Notorious Prisons in the United States 

  • ADX Florence
  • Twin Towers Correctional Facility
  • United States Penitentiary Pollock
  • Pelican Bay State Prison
  • Holman Correctional Facility
  • Orleans Parish Prison
  • San Quentin State Prison
  • United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth
  • United States Penitentiary, Beaumont
  • Cook County Jail

1- ADX Florence

ADX Florence, also known as the Florence Supermax, is a formidable symbol of maximum security in the American federal prison system. Located in Fremont County, Colorado, it operates under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, offering an unparalleled level of custody designed for the most dangerous and high-profile inmates. 

Constructed in 1994 and opened a year later, ADX Florence was born out of necessity. The Federal Bureau of Prisons required a facility capable of securely housing individuals prone to extreme violence towards staff or other inmates, as well as those deemed too great a security risk for even regular maximum-security prisons.

The inmates at ADX Florence spend the majority of their days confined to single cells made of reinforced concrete, under 24-hour supervision with a high staff-to-inmate ratio. The intensive monitoring is crucial given the nature of the inmates housed there.

One striking aspect of ADX Florence is its classification as a supermax or “control unit” prison. This designation reflects its function as a facility providing an even higher level of security and control compared to standard maximum-security prisons.

The history of ADX Florence is marked by incidents like the fatal stabbings of correctional officers at the United States Penitentiary, Marion in 1983, which highlighted the need for more secure housing for dangerous inmates.

Notable for its “Alcatraz of the Rockies” moniker, ADX Florence is part of the larger Federal Correctional Complex, Florence. While it primarily houses male inmates, women classified as special management concerns are held elsewhere.

Despite its effectiveness in managing high-risk prisoners, ADX Florence has faced criticism, particularly regarding the mental health impact of extended solitary confinement. Legal challenges and controversies surrounding its use of special administrative measures have also arisen over the years.

Read More: Worst Prisons in the World

2- Twin Towers Correctional Facility 

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility, located in Los Angeles, California, stands as a towering complex operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Opened in 1997, this 1.5 million square foot complex initially faced challenges, including a period of emptiness due to funding shortages post the Northridge earthquake.

Despite boasting state-of-the-art security systems, the facility garnered infamy when inmate Kevin Jerome Pullum orchestrated a daring escape in 2001, just two hours after being convicted of attempted murder. Pullum’s escape, facilitated by an altered identification badge featuring a newspaper photograph of actor Eddie Murphy, marked the 13th successful jailbreak.

In May 2013, Twin Towers, alongside the adjacent Men’s Central Jail, earned notoriety as one of the ten worst County Jails in the U.S., according to Mother Jones. Reports surfaced of overcrowding and troubling behavior by deputies, including unprovoked attacks on inmates and allegations of indifference to inmate safety.

Furthermore, the facility has faced criticism from human rights advocates for its role in the use of psychiatric drugs to manage prisoners, raising concerns about the treatment of inmates and the broader implications for mental health care in correctional settings. 

3- United States Penitentiary Pollock

Situated in Grant Parish, Louisiana, the United States Penitentiary, Pollock (USP Pollock) is a high-security federal prison exclusively for male inmates. As part of the Pollock Federal Correctional Complex (FCC Pollock), overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, USP Pollock serves as a critical component of the nation’s correctional system.

USP Pollock has seen notable incidents, including a daring escape in 2006 by convicted murderer Richard Lee McNair. McNair carefully planned an “escape pod” concealed under outgoing mailbags, enabling his breakout during a routine transport. Despite an extensive manhunt spanning over a year, McNair was eventually apprehended in Canada, underscoring the gravity of his status as a high-escape risk.

Tragically, the facility has also witnessed acts of violence among inmates. In 2007, inmate William Anthony Bullock fell victim to a fatal stabbing during a confrontation with another inmate, Shaun Wayne Williams. Williams, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, faced an additional 15-year sentence for his role in Bullock’s death. 

Similarly, inmate Steven Prater met a grim fate in 2010, succumbing to injuries sustained in a fight with another prisoner. Another inmate, Carlton Coltrane, lost his life in a stabbing incident reportedly linked to ongoing disputes between inmate factions.

These incidents underscore the complex dynamics of USP Pollock, where tensions can escalate in the blink of an eye. Despite these challenges, USP Pollock continues its mission to administer justice and maintain order within the confines of its walls. 

4- Pelican Bay State Prison

Situated in a detached area of Crescent City, several miles north of the main urban area and just south of the Oregon border, Pelican Bay State Prison commands attention as a high-security correctional facility. Established in 1989, the prison covers a sprawling 275 acres and operates with a distinct physical division.

At the heart of the prison lies the Security Housing Unit (SHU), characterized by an X-shaped cluster of buildings housing 1,056 solitary confinement cells. Each cell, measuring 8 ft × 10 ft, contains basic amenities including a bed, sink-toilet combination, and minimal furniture. Supervision is centralized, with armed guards monitoring multiple pods from control booths and ensuring tight security measures.

Beyond the SHU, Pelican Bay accommodates Level IV (maximum security) inmates in a general population setting, alongside Level II inmates in an open-cell dormitory and Level I (minimum security) prisoners in an external facility. According to recent reports, the prison hosted 1,852 individuals, with 60% classified as Level IV inmates, 290 of whom were housed in the SHU. 

However, Pelican Bay’s history is famous for instances of brutality and controversy. In its early years, guards committed acts of violence, including staged “gladiator fights” and horrific physical abuse. Media scrutiny and legal action, notably the 1995 Madrid v. Gomez ruling, prompted reforms to address excessive force and inadequate healthcare. 

Pelican Bay has witnessed an enormous amount of hunger strikes protesting harsh conditions and prolonged isolation, drawing attention to issues of solitary confinement. In response to legal challenges, California terminated its unlimited isolation policy in 2015 and signaled a shift towards more humane treatment of inmates.

Read More: What Is Crime and Its Different Types?

5- Holman Correctional Facility 

Situated along Alabama State Highway 21, about 9 miles north of Atmore in southern Alabama, the William C. Holman Correctional Facility is considered a significant unit in the state’s prison system. Originally constructed in 1969 to accommodate 520 medium-custody inmates, Holman has undergone significant expansion. This prison boasts a capacity of over 1,000 inmates, including those on death row.

Despite its remote location, Holman gained notoriety for its chaotic history marked by violence and unrest. Overcrowding and understaffing have plagued the facility for decades and contributed to a cycle of brutality and conflict among inmates. The prison’s violent image continued to exist as shown by events like the large-scale riot in 1985 and the fatal stabbing of a staff member in 1974.

In the early 2000s, efforts were made to curb violence under the leadership of Warden Grantt Culliver, resulting in a temporary decline in incidents. However, by 2016, violence surged once again, leading to riots and protests against harsh conditions and overcrowding. The prison gained national attention as the epicenter of the 2016 U.S. prison strike and highlighted inmates’ demands for better wages and improved living conditions. 

Tragically, violence at Holman claimed the life of Correctional Officer Kenneth Bettis in 2016 which showed the deadly environment faced by both inmates and staff. Staff shortages and high turnover raised more challenges, with absenteeism and mandatory overtime. 

Conditions within the facility have been described as harsh and oppressive, with temperatures reaching upwards of 100°F during summer months. Lack of air conditioning further increases the discomfort and leaves inmates to cope with stifling heat using only industrial fans.  

Inmate accounts paint a grim picture of life at Holman, with nicknames like “The Slaughterhouse” and “House of Pain” reflecting the pervasive violence and despair. Homemade alcohol, known as “julep,” serves as a coping mechanism for some inmates, offering a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of prison life.

6- Orleans Parish Prison

Orleans Parish Prison, serving as New Orleans’ city jail, has a long and troubled history dating back to its establishment in 1837. Originally situated on a square bound by Orleans, Tremé, St. Ann, and Marais, the prison faced severe overcrowding and deplorable conditions, particularly for enslaved individuals subjected to harsh punishment.

Despite efforts to address its shortcomings, Orleans Parish Prison has grappled with systemic issues and earned a notorious reputation for violence and neglect. Lack of oversight and mentoring of inmates by deputies led to rampant fights, stabbings, and deaths, especially within the infamous 13-story House of Detention. A class-action lawsuit filed by inmates in 1969 failed to prompt adequate reforms, leaving the prison mired in dysfunction.

The prison’s troubles came to a head during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when staff abandoned roughly 650 prisoners in their cells, exposing them to floodwaters and other dangers. The subsequent evacuation efforts were chaotic, with inmates enduring hunger, beatings, and racially charged abuse by jail staff.

Following Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated significant funds for the restoration of Orleans Parish Prison. Phased construction projects aimed to modernize the facilities including the addition of new amenities. 

Inmate deaths have continued to plague the prison in later years, with reports citing numerous fatalities, including those of recently released inmates. The prison has housed notable individuals, such as the adult women from the Golden Venture vessel and state Senator Troy E. Brown, spotlighting its role as a significant institution in Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

7- San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest correctional facility and the state’s sole execution site. Established in 1854 during the California Gold Rush to address rising crime rates, San Quentin quickly became one of dangerous prisons for its harsh conditions and frequent escapes. 

Initially, the prison was managed privately which led to widespread abuse and neglect of inmates. Inhumane disciplinary measures like floggings and brutal punishments were commonplace. However, the state intervened in 1858 after escalating complaints and reclaimed control from private lessors, marking the beginning of a series of reforms and renovations.

Under the leadership of wardens like J.P. Ames and James A. Johnston, significant changes were implemented. Corporal punishment was banned, and initiatives for medical treatment, education, and vocational training were introduced. The publication of the Wall City News, later renamed San Quentin News, provided inmates with a platform for expression and communication.

Expansions and renovations were also undertaken to accommodate the growing inmate population. New buildings, including factory structures and additional cell blocks, were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite these developments, San Quentin remained plagued by violence and unrest, particularly during the decades of the 1960s and ’70s.

San Quentin gained further notoriety as the site of California’s executions, transitioning from hanging to gas chamber and eventually lethal injection. However, overcrowding became a significant issue in later years, straining resources and increasing security concerns. Efforts to close the facility intensified in the early 21st century, fueled by debates over the prison’s prime real estate value. Despite calls for closure, San Quentin remained operational, struggling with its legacy while facing the challenges of modern imprisonment. 

Throughout its long history, San Quentin has been a symbol of the complexities and controversies inherent in the correctional system. Its story reflects the evolving attitudes towards punishment, rehabilitation, and the pursuit of justice in American society. 

8- United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth 

The United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth (USP Leavenworth), situated in northeast Kansas, stands as a significant correctional facility operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Established in 1895, it holds the distinction of being the oldest federal prison in the state, often confused with the nearby United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth.

USP Leavenworth boasts a rich history, discussed in various publications, including Pete Earley’s book “The Hot House” and Kenneth M. LaMaster’s “U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth.” Initially designed as a maximum-security federal prison, it served as the largest of its kind in the United States until its downgrade to a medium-security facility in 2005.

The prison’s architecture follows the Auburn system, with cell blocks housed within a large rectangular building, contrasting with the earlier Pennsylvania plan. Over the years, USP Leavenworth has undergone expansions and renovations to accommodate its growing population, including the construction of factory structures and additional cell blocks.

Throughout its existence, USP Leavenworth has been witness to several significant events. Notable among these was the escape of six prisoners in 1910, who commandeered a locomotive to break through prison gates. Another daring escape occurred in 1931 when seven inmates, aided by gangsters, took the warden hostage and fled the facility.

The prison has also been the site of executions, with notable cases including the hanging of serial killer Carl Panzram in 1930 and the double hanging of Robert Suhay and Glenn Applegate in 1938. 

In recent years, USP Leavenworth has changed its mission and operations. The Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to reclassify the facility from high/maximum security to medium security while retaining its historical designation as a United States Penitentiary.

9- United States Penitentiary, Beaumont

The United States Penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, holds a prominent reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the United States. Its history is marked by a series of events that have contributed to its infamy.

The origins of the prison date back to 1998 when it was established to address the growing need for high-security federal facilities. However, its location in Beaumont was not chosen randomly. It was built on the site of the former Beaumont Prison Camp, which operated from 1984 to 1996. This history laid the groundwork for the challenges and issues that would later plague the penitentiary.

Over the years, the Beaumont Penitentiary has witnessed numerous incidents of violence, riots, and escapes, contributing to its reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the country. These events have often been attributed to factors such as overcrowding, understaffing, killings, and the presence of high-risk inmates.

One such event occurred on March 3, 2014, when inmates Ricky Fackrell and Christopher Cramer, both members of the white supremacist prison gang Soldiers of Aryan Culture (SAC), brutally stabbed inmate Leo Johns to death. Fackrell and Cramer believed they needed to punish Johns for engaging in prohibited activities such as gambling and drinking within the gang. Despite defense claims that the assault was not intended to result in death, both perpetrators were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Subsequently, they were sentenced to death in 2018 and transferred to USP Terre Haute following their initial housing at ADX Florence.

On January 31, 2022, the penitentiary witnessed another fatal altercation. In this incident, multiple members of the notorious MS-13 gang launched a violent attack on associates of the Mexican Mafia and the Surenos. Despite swift intervention by prison officers, four inmates were severely injured, with Andrew Pineda and Guillermo Riojas succumbing to their injuries. The shocking brutality of this incident prompted the United States Bureau of Prisons to implement a lockdown across the entire Federal Prison network.

The Beaumont Penitentiary has been home to some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the federal prison system. The presence of these inmates, often convicted of violent crimes, has contributed to the volatile environment within the facility.

Despite efforts by prison authorities to improve conditions and security measures, including increased staff training and stricter inmate monitoring, the Beaumont Penitentiary continues to be plagued by incidents of violence and unrest. 

Read More: Patriots and National Heroes of the United States

10- Cook County Jail

The Cook County Jail, situated on 96 acres in South Lawndale, Chicago, Illinois, is an iconic institution in the American criminal justice system. Over its long history, it has earned nicknames like “California” or “Hotel California,” owing to its location on California Street.

Since its establishment, the jail has played a crucial role in housing major County prisoners, combining inmates from various facilities, and hosting high-profile trials. Notably, it has held infamous criminals like Tony Accardo, Frank Nitti, Larry Hoover, and John Wayne Gacy, adding to its notoriety. 

The jail’s history is marred by incidents of violence and chaos, with one of the most shocking being the use of electrocution for executions between 1928 and 1962. During this time, the electric chair claimed the lives of 67 individuals, including the state’s last electrocution in 1962.

In the 21st century, Cook County Jail faced a new challenge with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility became one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in the United States, prompting legal action due to allegations of failure to address the public health crisis adequately. A federal judge intervened, mandating additional testing and social distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus within the jail.

Over time, the jail has faced scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, which found systemic violations of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights. These violations ranged from inadequate protection from harm to poor living conditions and substandard medical care. Such findings led to federal sanctions and class-action lawsuits.

Despite its troubled history, Cook County Jail has also found its way into popular culture. It served as the inspiration for the musical “Chicago” and its film adaptation, depicting the women’s section of the former jail. Moreover, it has been featured in various TV series and documentaries. 


The United States is home to some of the most notorious prisons, each with its history of violence, corruption, and challenges. From the maximum-security ADX Florence to the sprawling Cook County Jail, these institutions have gained infamy for their conditions and the inmates they house. Whether it’s the federal penitentiaries like Leavenworth and Beaumont or state facilities like Pelican Bay and San Quentin, these prisons reflect the broader issues within the criminal justice system. Their notoriety serves as a reminder of the ongoing need for reform and accountability in the treatment of inmates across the country. 


1- How Many Supermax Prisons Are in the USA?

ADX Florence is the only Supermax prison that operates within the American criminal justice system, which detains over 1.6 million prisoners.

2- Are there Secret Prisons in the United States?

In a September 6, 2006, speech, US President George W. Bush revealed the existence of CIA-run secret prisons, particularly with counterterrorism efforts and national security operations.

3- Which Country Treats its Prisoners the Best? 

In Norway, the major goal of correctional facilities is to keep offenders under their care while trying to rehabilitate them into the community. Norway is known for having one of the most efficient and humane jail systems in the world. 

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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