Rights & Liberties

The 10 Worst Prisons in America

Prisons are nasty places by design, but these 10 stand out as the most brutal and horrific places to do time.
One lawsuit cites a "deeply entrenched" pattern of violence by guards at Rikers Island. | Credit: USGS/WIKIPEDIA COMMONS
One lawsuit cites a "deeply entrenched" pattern of violence by guards at Rikers Island. | Credit: USGS/WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

“If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.” So goes the old saying. Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment.

  • Our partner

Doing time is not supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These, however, are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year — men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

The United States boasts the world's highest incarceration rate, with close to 2.3 million people locked away in some 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Most are nasty places by design, aimed at punishment and exclusion rather than rehabilitation; while reliable numbers are hard to come by, at last count 81,622 prisoners were being held in some form of isolation in state and federal prisons. Thousands more are being held in solitary at jails, deportation facilities, and juvenile-detention centers. Nearly 1 in 10 prisoners is sexually victimized, by prison employees about half of the time — more than 200,000 such assaults take place in American penal facilities every year (PDF), according to estimates compiled under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Suicides, meanwhile, account for almost a third of prisoner deaths, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while an unknown number of fatalities result from substandard nutrition and medical care.

While there's plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of these problems, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We've compiled this subjective list of America's 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy. We will be rolling out profiles of the contenders over the next 10 days, complete with photos and video.

11] DISHONORABLE MENTIONS

These dishonorable mentions make up the final installment of our 11-part series, a subjective ranking based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.

Attica Correctional Facility (Attica, New York): More than four decades after its famous uprising, New York's worst state prison still lives up to its brutal history. According to the Correctional Association of New York, which has a legislative mandate to track prison conditions, Attica is plagued by staff-on-prisoner violence, intimidation, and sexual abuse.

Communications Management Units (Marion, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana): These two federal prisons-within-prisons, whose populations are more than two-thirds Muslim, were opened secretly by the Bureau of Prisons during the Bush administration, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is challenging the facilities in a federal lawsuit. “The Bureau claims that CMUs are designed to hold dangerous terrorists and other high-risk inmates, requiring heightened monitoring of their external and internal communications,” notes a lawsuit fact sheet. “Many prisoners, however, are sent to these isolation units for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.” (Also see: Pelican Bay.)

Ely State Prison (Ely, Nevada): A “shocking and callous disregard for human life” is how an auditor described medical care at Ely, which houses the state's death row along with other maximum security prisoners (PDF). The audit, which found that one prisoner was allowed to rot to death from gangrene, formed the basis of a 2008 class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU's National Prison Project. The suit was settled in 2010, but by 2012 the prison still was not in full compliance.

Idaho Correctional Center (Kuna, Idaho): Run by Corrections Corporation of America, the world's largest private prison company, ICC has been dubbed a “gladiator school” for its epidemic of gang violence. According to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the ACLU of Idaho (PDF), the violence is not only condoned but actively promoted by the staff. The suit was settled, but last November, the ACLU said CCA appeared to be violating the agreement, which called for increased staffing and training, reporting of assaults to the local sheriff's office, and disciplinary measures for staffers who didn't take steps to stop or prevent assaults.

San Quentin State Prison (Marin County, California): This decrepit prison, which sits on a $2 billion piece of bayside real estate, is home to America's largest death row. As of late-April, there were 711 men and 20 women condemned to die at San Quentin — you can find the latest stats here (PDF); the figure is constantly changing, despite a state moratorium on executions, because prisoners frequently die of illness or old age. Some even commit suicide rather than remain in solitary limbo.

Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola, Louisiana): At America's largest prison, those who embrace warden Burl Cain's pet program of “moral rehabilitation” through Christianity are afforded privileges while sinners languish in institutional hell. A former slave plantation, the prison lends its name to the so-called Angola 3, two of whom have been held in solitary for 40 years, largely for their perceived political beliefs. (In March, Louisiana's attorney generaldeclared, bafflingly, that the men had “never been in solitary confinement.”)

United States Penitentiary (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania): In this overcrowded supermax, the target of multiple lawsuits, prisoners are locked down for 23 to 24 hours a day in the company of a cellmate. One lawsuitalleges that prison officials deliberately pair people with their enemies, and that this practice has led to at least two deaths. The suit also claims that prisoners have been strapped to their bunks with four-point restraints if they resist their cell assignments.

10] RIKERS ISLAND (NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK)

Number of inmates: ~10,000 (capacity ~15,000)

Who's in charge: Evelyn A. Mirabal, chief; Dora Schriro, commissioner, of the New York City Department of Corrections

The basics: When it comes to ignominies, New York City's island jail complex has it all: inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and one of the nation's highest rates of solitary confinement. Rikers, which hosts 10 separate jails, has been the target of dozens of lawsuits and numerous exposés. Yet the East River island remains a dismal and dangerous place for the 12,000 or more men, women, and children held there on any given day — mostly pretrial defendants who can't make bail and nonviolent offenders with sentences too short to ship them upstate.

The backlash: In 2008, 18-year-old Christopher Robinson, who had violated his probation for a juvenile robbery offense, was beaten and stomped to death in his cell in Rikers youth unit. An investigation revealed that the killers, two fellow prisoners, were part of what was known as “the program,” described by the Bronx DA as a “secret society run by correctional officers at Rikers Island to extort and beat other inmates,” supposedly in the name of maintaining order. Two of the facility's guards pleaded guilty to assault and to charges related to running the extortion program, although the DA presented no evidence connecting them to Robinson's death.

2012 lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society also documents a “deeply entrenched” pattern of violence by the guards, who “use unlawful, excessive force with impunity” and often send prisoners to the hospital, costing the city millions in legal settlements. Despite the alleged complicity of staff in the rampant violence, the Department of Corrections' response has been to build more solitary cells at Rikers — nearly 1,000 in all, with special isolation units for adolescents and for people with mental illness.

9] WALNUT GROVE YOUTH CORRECTIONAL FACILITY (LEAKE COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI)

Number of prisoners: Capacity 1,450 (actual population in flux)

Who's in charge: (current) Lawrence Mack, warden; (former) George Zoley, CEO, the GEO Group; Christopher B. Epps, commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections

The basics: Efforts are underway to clean up and clear out Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which one federal judge called “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts” visited upon children as young as 13. For years, the kids at Walnut Grove were subjected to a gauntlet of physical and sexual assaults, and psychological abuse including long-term solitary confinement. All of this took place under the management of private prison conglomerate the GEO Group.

The backlash: Evidence gathered for a report by the Justice Department and a lawsuit by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote in a 2012 court order. The court found that conditions at Walnut Grove violated the Constitution, not to mention state and federal civil and criminal laws. Guards regularly had sex with their young charges and the facility's pattern of “brutal” rapes among prisoners was the worst of “any facility anywhere in the nation” (court's emphasis). Guards also were deemed excessively violent — beating, kicking, and punching “handcuffed and defenseless” youths and frequently subjecting them to chemical restraints such as pepper spray, even for insignificant infractions.

The guards also sold drugs on site and staged “gladiator-style” fights. “It'd be like setting up a fight deal like you would with two dogs,” one former resident told NPR. “They actually bet on it. It was payday for the guards.” Said another: “A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.” Kids who complained or tried to report these incidents faced harsh retribution, including long stints in solitary.

Judge Reeves wrote that the state had turned a blind eye to the prison company's abuses: Walnut Grove's charges, ”some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day.“ In accord with a court decree, the facility's youngest residents have been moved to a state-run juvenile facility, and Mississippi canceled its contract with GEO — which still runs some 65 prisons nationwide. The contract was handed over to another private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, which also has been a target of criticism for advocates of criminal justice reform.

8] REEVES COUNTY DETENTION COMPLEX (PECOS, TEXAS)

Number of prisoners: ~3,750

Who's in charge: Dwight Sims, (former) warden; George Zoley, CEO, the GEO Group; Matthew Nace, Chief, BOP Acquisitions Branch

The basics: Reeves houses so-called criminal aliens, held for various types of nonviolent violations — some three-quarters of them are held there merely for entering the country without permission. Like thousands of other migrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they have been placed in the hands of a private prison company under contract with the Bureau of Prisons. The GEO Group, which operates Reeves, proudly declares itself ”the largest detention/correctional facility under private management in the world.“

Overcrowded and understaffed, Reeves has a reputation for horrifically inadequate medical care. In 2008, an epileptic 32-year-old detainee named Jesus Manuel Galindo died of a seizure in his solitary confinement cell. His death, on the heels of at least four others at Reeves over the previous two years, followed repeated pleas from Galindo, his family, and fellow inmates to provide him with effective medication — the prison medical staff only offered him Tylenol — and to move him out of isolation so he could get help quickly when he had seizures.

The sight of Galindo's body being carried out of the prison in what appeared to be a plastic garbage bag sparked the first of several riots in which detainees took hostages and set fire to parts of the mammoth detention complex.

The backlash: A 2010 lawsuit filed in the Galindo case by the ACLU of Texas (PDF) alleged that the prison kept costs down by withholding appropriate medical care — prisoners told ACLU investigators that they routinely would be given ”two Tylenol“ when they complained of serious medical problems, including stomach ulcers, blood in the urine or stool, lumps that appeared to be spreading, and various previously diagnosed chronic and serious conditions; those who pushed for better treatment ended up in solitary. ”Prisoners at RCDC face an impossible situation,“ said one ACLU attorney. ”Private prison officials cut costs and provide deficient care, and the Bureau of Prisons won't hear grievances about private prisons. That is a Catch-22 with deadly consequences.“

When we asked the GEO Group about the allegations, the company's VP of Corporate Relations wrote back to say that medical care at Reeves is provided by a separate contractor. (He did not, however, address the ACLU's claim that prisoners who complained were placed in solitary, or a follow-up question asking whether GEO Group employees are in a position to determine which prisoners get access to medical staff when they complain of a problem.) Physicians Network Association, the medical contractor, referred questions to its corporate parent, Correctional Healthcare Companies, which did not respond to our queries.

While the BOP chose not to investigate Galindo's death, officials at Reeves identified several rioters, who were prosecuted and given additional time behind bars. As for the GEO Group, despite a long trail of complaints, lawsuits, and prisoner deaths, its annual revenues have grown steadily over the past two decades, reaching $1.7 billion last year. On the same day the Galindo lawsuit was filed, ICE awarded GEO a contract to operate another detention center in Texas.

7] JULIA TITWILER PRISON (WETUMPKA, ALABAMA)

Number of inmates: 400

Who's in charge: Bobby Barrett, warden (recently replaced longtime warden Frank Albright); Kim Thomas, commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections

The basics: This maximum-security lockup near Montgomery includes women's death row. For decades, it also included a special segregation unit for the quarantine of female prisoners with HIV. Under a policy that echoed both the pre-civil-rights-era South and the AIDS panic of the 1980s, women prisoners who tested positive in Alabama were quarantined from the general prison population and barred from most work, education, rehab, and mental health treatment programs. In a letter to the warden, one woman wrote that prisoners were treated ”like we are contagious animals…It's like punishment 3 times over. Prison, the virus, then the denial of an education, or trade. We are secluded from everyday life.“

Women in all sections of Tutwiler face the prospect of sexual abuse, including rape by prison staff, according to a complaint filed with the US Justice Department by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (PDF). From 2009 through 2011, six Tutwiler employees were indicted on charges of custodial sexual misconduct or custodial sexual abuse. (All pled guilty, but only two served time.)

Several Tutwiler prisoners have become pregnant after being raped by guards. And women who complained about staff abuse were often placed in solitary. The women of Tutwiler, EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson told Birmingham TV station WBRC, live with ”this fear that you're always at risk, that it's not safe to take a shower, that it's not safe to go to sleep when certain officers are in the dorm, that you can be extorted, that you can be manipulated into sexual favors, it's really horrific.“

The backlash: In December, federal judge Myron Thompson sided with prisoners in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU's National Prison Project and ordered the facility to end its quarantine policy. Thompson, who had previously toured the prison, recalled at trial what it was like to walk into a room at Tutwiler's HIV unit: ”The depression in that room was almost palpable,“ he said. ”You could almost touch it, it was so overwhelming.“ He concluded that the state's policy was ”an unnecessary tool for preventing the transmission of HIV“ but ”an effective one for humiliating and isolating prisoners living with the disease.“

Interviews conducted at the prison for a November 2012 Justice Department report (PDF) supported the pattern of sexual abuse alleged by EJI. Some of the prisoners said they ”do not feel physically or sexually safe in this facility,“ the report noted. Among other things, the women said they were ”forced to shower shoulder to shoulder in full view of an elevated officer's station“ where male staffers sat and watched. ”The women and staff report that Tutwiler is a repressive and intimidating environment,“ the report states. ”Inmates reported being in fear of retaliation by staff if they reject staff's sexual advances. Additionally, they report that they feel that they cannot bring their complaints to the administration, as they will be locked down if they annoy or anger some administrators.“

”To the extent that that exists in reality, that is not acceptable, and we're going to do everything in our power to eliminate“ it, responded Kim Thomas, head of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

6] PELICAN BAY STATE PRISON (CRESCENT CITY, CALIFORNIA)

Number of prisoners: 3,500 (1,500 in solitary)

Who's in charge: Greg Lewis, warden; Jeffrey Beard, secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

The basics: California leads the nation both in its overall prison population and in the number of prisoners in solitary confinement — about 11,000 men and women on any given day. At Pelican Bay, the state's first and most notorious supermax, the 1,500 occupants of the Security Housing Unit (SHU) and Administrative Housing Unit spend 22.5 hours a day alone in windowless cells measuring about 7 x 11 feet. The remaining 90 minutes are spent, also alone, in bare concrete exercise pens. With no phone calls allowed, and only the rare noncontact visit, these prisoners, like those at ADX and Texas' Allan Polunsky Unit, can only access the world outside their cells via their ”feeding slots.“ And their only interactions with fellow prisoners consists of shouting through steel mesh — until the guards order them to shut up.

More than 500 Pelican Bay prisoners have lived in the SHU in excess of a decade, nearly 80 have been there for more than two decades, and one prisoner recently marked his 40th year in solitary. Two-thirds of these prisoners are serving indeterminate stints in the hole — not because of any misbehavior, but because corrections staff have labeled them gang members or ”associates.“

A 2012 Mother Jones/Investigative Fund investigation by Shane Bauer found that many of the racially charged gang ”validations“ were based on the prisoners' reading materials (Karl Marx and George Jackson), writings (advocating prisoners' rights or ”Afro-centric ideology“), and drawings (such as Aztec symbols). ”One inmate's validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it — alleged gang symbols — among Hershey's Kisses and a candy cane,“ Bauer wrote. Others are validated on the say-so of prisoners who snitch — which until very recently was one of the only ways to get out of the SHU. The other was to die.

The backlash: In 2011, a group of men in Pelican Bay's SHU protested their conditions by launching two three-week hunger strikes that eventually spread throughout the state prison system, but resulted in scant change. (By the end of February, California had reviewed the status of 144 of its 11,000 prisoners in solitary, and released 78 of them back into the general population. An additional 52 were admitted to a ”step-down program,“ which will take a minimum of four years to secure their release from solitary.)

Last May, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of hunger strike participants who ”reported viewing the possibility of death by starvation as a worthwhile risk in light of their current situation.“ SHU prisoners have promised to renew their hunger strike this July — read their letter to the authorities here (PDF).

5] MEN'S CENTRAL JAIL AND TWIN TOWERS CORRECTIONAL FACILITY (LOS ANGELES) 

Number of prisoners: 9,500 combined

Who's in charge: Ralph G. Ornelas and Randal J. Stover, jail captains; Lee Baca, LA County sheriff

The basics: ”To be an inmate in the Los Angeles County jails is to fear attacks“ by a ”savage gang of deputies,“ explains an extensive 2011 report (PDF) from the American Civil Liberties Union, which processes about 4,500 complaints each year from inmates of the nation's largest jail system. Packed at the best of times, Twin Towers and Men's Central are overflowing with prisoners transferred there from overcrowded California prisons under the state's court-ordered reorganization scheme. Eyewitnesses, including several prison chaplains, have reported that attacks by deputies at the twin facilities are often unprovoked or brought on by the slightest infractions. Additional deputies often pile on, sometimes after being alerted to the action on their walkie-talkies.

The report includes an anecdote, for instance, in which a prisoner who sustains multiple injuries in such an attack, is allegedly paraded naked down a jail module as a deputy yells ”gay boy walking,“ placed in a cell, and beaten and raped by other inmates as deputies stand by.

”None of this happened,“ counters Los Angeles Sheriff's Department spokesman Stephen Whitmore, who insists that the incident was thoroughly investigated. The man, Whitemore says, was assaulted by his fellows after word got out that he had been reading other prisoners' mail and contacting their girlfriends. He also received a prompt medical examination: ”There was no evidence that he was ever raped at all. There was no evidence that anything was said to him.“

Yet the ACLU's subsequent lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department contains a mind-blowing compendium of alleged attacks and brutality by staff that continues on for more than 30 pages: Prisoners are taunted with homophobic slurs, tormented and beaten while handcuffed, kicked, punched, Tasered, and pepper-sprayed—among other indignities.

What's more, the suit alleges, the jail has a pattern of sweeping such episodes under the rug. ”Incidents of deputy-on-inmate violence“ it reads, ”are routinely reported by deputies as an unprovoked inmate-on-deputy assault.“ And when prisoners complain of a beating or injury at the hand of deputies, ”those complaints are almost universally declared unfounded.“

In one alleged act of retaliation, two officers delivered a fierce beating to a prisoner who earlier had spoken to an ACLU representative on the block, ”hitting him repeatedly in the face and knees with a flashlight“ (he later received stitches on both sides of his face) before pepper-spraying him and throwing him down a flight of stairs. As the man lay bleeding, one of the deputies allegedly called out, ”'You fucking whiners, tell this to the ACLU, I dare you.'“

In another case, deputies, believing a prisoner had called them ”gay,“ allegedly slammed the man's head into a concrete wall, causing a concussion and a gash that required 35 stitches. He was then punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed, and shocked with a stun gun. The ACLU has even received reports of attacks on inmates who are mentally ill or confined to wheelchairs. Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent who oversaw the investigation of the Rodney King beating, called many of the routine beatings in the LA County jails ”far more severe than the King beating.“

The backlash: The number and serious nature of the allegations against the the Los Angeles County jail system has made it the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. Last September, the pattern of abuse documented by the ACLU was confirmed in a scathing 194-page report by a blue-ribbon commission convened by the LA County Board of Supervisors. ”I do have some deputies who have done some terrible things,“ Sheriff Baca admitted afterward. He pledged that he would get ”personally engaged“ in jail oversight.

4] Orleans Parish Prison (New Orleans)

Number of prisoners: 3,400

Who's in charge: Major Kevin Winfield, warden; Marlin N. Gusman, Orleans Parish sheriff

The basics: New Orleans' barbaric city jail first hit the national radar after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of inmates were abandoned for days in flooded cells without food, water, ventilation, or electricity — some of them were ”standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests,“ according to the ACLU [13]. But OPP's problems neither began with Katrina nor ended in the storm's wake, when prisoners were taken back to the surviving buildings.

Almost half of all prisoners at OPP are pretrial, accused but not convicted of crimes. Yet a stint here can be a de facto death sentence. According to investigations by the Justice Department, in the past two years, at least two inmates have managed to kill themselves while on suicide watch — one of them by stuffing toilet paper into his mouth until he suffocated. A third died while being held in five-point restraints [14]. A fourth was found dead after allegedly being beaten and pepper sprayed (PDF [15]). Prisoners also say that the guards supply them with drugs, and will often stand by during a melee and let inmates fight themselves bloody, according to a criminal defense attorney who served time at OPP himself [16].

In an interview with Mother Jones, Sheriff Gusman and jail doctor Samuel Gore disputed some of these details. In the pepper-spray incident, they contend, the man died three or four days afterward, and not as a result of his altercation: ”The autopsy was clear,“ Gore says. ”It was not a violent death. There was just minor bruises and minor abrasions.“ The restrained woman, the doctor says, was acting beligerent, spitting at deputies and ”voicing suicidal ideations.“ She had slipped her restraints and then, as staffers tried to put her back into them, stopped breathing and went ”flaccid.“ She was resuscitated and taken to the hospital where she died — the cause was not determined. As for guards supplying drugs, Gusman said: ”We have a zero-tolerance drug policy here. We looked at our records. Last time we arrested an employee was in 2011. Does it happen? Can it happen? Sure, it can happen. We take it very seriously.“

During a single month in 2012, according to Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Katie Schwartzmann, OPP sent 23 prisoners to the ER [17] with severe injuries — fractures, stab wounds, lacerations, puncture wounds, etc. — resulting from violence at the jail, which handled countless others in its own infirmary. (”They counted every time we sent someone for an x-ray, Gore contends, even for injuries that might have resulted from a “minor altercation” or a basketball game; Schwartzmann stands by her figures.)

In an April 2012 letter [18], the Justice Department's civil rights division upbraided Sheriff Gusman, noting that the “alarming conditions” previously identified at the jail had, if anything, gotten worse. “OPP is a violent and dangerous institution,” it stated, with “widespread sexual assaults.” The facility, it goes on, “is deliberately indifferent to prisoners with serious medical and mental health needs.”

The backlash: An epidemic of rapes, beatings by deputies, barely edible food, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical care puts the jail's residents “at imminent risk of serious harm,” according to a class-action lawsuit [19] filed by the SPLC in April 2012. Last December, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office signed a federal consent decree [20] (PDF [21]) promising to improve conditions at the jail. But Gusman is still fighting [22] with the feds and the mayor over who would oversee the changes, and who would pay for them.

3] TENT CITY JAIL (PHOENIX, ARIZONA)

Number of prisoners: ~2,000

Who's in charge: Joe Arpaio, warden and sheriff of Maricopa County

The basics: No jail is more closely associated with its jailer than Tent City, the 20-year-old brainchild of Maricopa County's infamous tough-guy sheriff Joe Arpaio. In 1993, to save the county the cost of building a new jail, Arpaio set up hundreds of Army surplus tents from the Korean War era and used them to house prisoners. Tent City residents now number more than 2,000, most of them awaiting trial. (See this county press release (PDF) for an event celebrating its 20th year.) The tents are unheated in winter and uncooled in summer—temperatures inside them have been clocked as high as 145 degrees. A few permanent buildings suffice for showers and meals, and a guard tower displays a permanent “vacancy” sign, warning passersby to stay in line. Arpaio himself has called the place a “concentration camp,” while Tent City's prisoners have gone so far as to cobble together a survival guide.

To humiliate his charges, Arpaio dresses them in old-school chain-gang stripes, and forces male prisoners to don pink underpants — a detail that has scored him some points among locals. “I can get elected on pink underwear,” the 80-year-old sheriff has said. “I've done it five times.” By day, men, women, and even some teens are sent out to work on chain gangs, sustained by twice-daily meals that are the cheapest among the nation's lockups. (Arpaio brags that he saved taxpayers $20,000 by eliminating salt and pepper.) Back at camp they risk beatings by gangbangers and guards, and medical care so abysmal that it has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal court.

The backlash: In a 2011 report, the Justice Department report found “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” in the jails run by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, based on the frequent use of racial slurs and punishments for prisoners who fail to speak English.  The federal lawsuit that followed is just one of the many legal actions against Arpaio, accusing him of corruption and incompetence as well as racial profiling. So far, he has pretty much dodged all bullets, and in November was reelected to his sixth term.

2] ALLAN B. POLUNSKY UNIT, A.K.A. DEATH ROW (LIVINGSTON, TEXAS) 

Number of prisoners: ~300

Who's in charge: Richard Alford, former warden at Polunksy, he now oversees all the region's prisons; Oliver Bell, chairman, Texas Board of Criminal Justice

The basics: “The most lethal [death row] anywhere in the democratic world” is also probably “the hardest place to do time in Texas,” writes Robert Perkinson, author of the book TexasTough. Indeed, the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit houses condemned Texans under some of the nation's harshest death row conditions. The prisoners are housed in single cells on 22-hour-a-day lockdown, and even during their daily “recreation” hour, they are confined in separate cages. With no access to phones, televisions, contact visits, they remain in essentially a concrete tomb (PDF) until execution day—a stretch of at least three years for the mandatory appeals, and far longer if they opt to keep fighting. Some have been known to commit suicide or waive their appeals rather than continue living under such conditions.

The backlash: At Polunsky, the “emotional torture” of awaiting death in total isolation is “driving men out of their minds,” former prisoner Anthony Graves told senators last year at the first-ever Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement. “I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in three years they don't live in the real world anymore,” recalled Graves, who was exonerated in 2010, after spending more than 18 years on death row.

Graves detailed for the senators some of the profoundly erratic behavior of his fellow prisoners. “I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself, and light it on fire. Another guy…would take his feces and smear it all over his face as though he was in military combat.”

This man, Graves added, was ruled competent for execution. While on the gurney, “he was babbling incoherently to the officers, 'I demand that you release me soldier, this is your captain speaking.' These were the words coming out of a man's mouth, who was driven insane by the prison conditions, as the poison was being pumped into his arms.”

Another prisoner, a paranoid schizophrenic named Andre Thomas, scooped out his eye and ate it during his stay at Polunsky. He, too, remains on track for execution. It is perhaps no wonder that Dallas insurance executive Charles Terrell asked to have his name removed from the facility after it became death row.

1] US PENITENTIARY ADMINISTRATIVE MAXIMUM (FLORENCE, COLORADO)

Number of prisoners: ~440

Who's in charge: David Berkebile, warden; Charles Samuels, director, Federal Bureau of Prisons

The basics: Known as ADX, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” this is among the most secure prisons in the world — and one of the most isolating: Many of its cells, fashioned out of poured concrete with solid steel doors, are equipped with built-in showers and automated chutes that open onto private concrete “exercise yards,” such that occupants need never see a guard or fellow prisoner — much less a visitor. One former warden interviewed by 60 Minutes called it “pretty close” to hell.

Some ADX prisoners have killed guards or prisoners at other facilities. But many others land here by virtue of their notoriety or politics. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, and Oklahoma City conspirator Terry Nichols are all notable personages, to be sure, but none of them has been shown to present any special security risks in an ordinary prison environment. Many of those housed at ADX are Muslims serving time for low-level terrorism offenses — such as Syed Fahad Hashmi, convicted of helping to supply Al Qaeda with socks and rain ponchos.

The backlash: ADX residents have been the plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits claiming cruel and unusual punishment. Consider the following quote from a class-action filed on the prisoners' behalf last June, keeping in mind that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a policy against housing the mentally ill at ADX:

Many prisoners at ADX interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. A number swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass, and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and to the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them. Still others spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful.

This particular lawsuit details the case of Jack Powers, a convicted bank robber who landed at ADX after escaping from another prison. Powers, according to his suit, “had no history or symptoms of serious mental illness” when he arrived at ADX 11 years ago. While there, in addition to repeated suicide attempts, he has removed one of his testicles, bitten off a finger and amputated another one, sliced off his earlobes, and severed his Achilles tendon. ADX officials, the lawsuit alleges, in some instances treated these acts of self-mutilation as disciplinary violations.

In June 2012, a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held the first-ever Congressional hearings on solitary confinement, and grilled BOP director Charles Samuels about conditions at ADX. This past February, the BOP announced that it would be undergoing an “assessment” of its solitary-confinement practices.

This series was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and was also supported by a Soros Justice Media Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations. Additional reporting by Beth Broyles, Valeria Monfrini, Katie Rose Quandt, and Sal Rodriguez.

About the reporters

Jean Casella

Jean Casella

Jean Casella is a writer, editor, and consultant to mission-driven media projects.

James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway is the co-director and editor of Solitary Watch.