Prisons are places where people are housed when they are convicted of a crime. A typical cell will include bars, very few windows, barbed wire, and a whole lot of cement. At least, that’s what stereotypical prisons look like. Around the world, prisons come in all different shapes and sizes, and have different levels of rehabilitation services.
Where Kresty in Russia is known for its extreme overcrowding and lack of rehab, there is a tiny prison located on the island of Sark that is only large enough for two inmates and is used as a holding cell! Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating prisons found around the world.
Cebu Provincial Detention And Rehabilitation Center, Cebu Province, Philippines
Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Cebu Province, Philippines, is a maximum-security prison that is famous for its rehabilitation program. While other facilities use rehab programs to get their inmates prepared for life outside of prison, CPDRC uses exercise, specifically dance.
Some believe this form of rehabilitation is not proper, and the prison has been criticized for enforcing the exercises. There are even former prisoners who have stated that those who refused to join in the dancing would be punished. These claims were never proven, though.
ADX Florence, Colorado, United States
Informally known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” ADX Florence provides a higher level of security than a maximum-level security facility. Located in Colorado, prisoners here are detained in their cells for 23 hours out of the day and have limited “broadcast entertainment.” The hope is to encourage peaceful living and deter career prisoners from a life of crime once they are released.
The supermax prison only houses male prisoners who require 24-hour surveillance and are considered to be highly dangerous. This includes people who pose a threat to national security. ADX Florence is considered to be the most secure prison in the world.
Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, California, United States
Pelican Bay State Prison is the only super-maximum security prison in the state of California. The facility is known for its long-term Security Housing Units (SHU) and inmate protesting due to the harsh conditions of the cells.
Each SHU is an eight by ten-foot windowless room of solid concrete. If a person is sentenced to a SHU, they are confined to their cell for 23 hours a day, only allowed out for exercise. Not that exercise is a luxury. The recreation area is a concrete room that spans about three cells and has a roof that’s partially open to the sky.
Bastøy Prison In Horten, Norway
Bastøy Prison in Horten, Norway, is a low-security facility that can house up to 115 prisoners. Here, inmates live a fairly comfortable life. If sentenced to Bastøy, inmates find themselves living in cozy cottages, dining on food sourced from the land, and enjoying various amenities such as a sauna, tennis courts, and even horseback riding.
The prison was founded in 1982, and since then, there has only been one attempted escape. Prisoners know they have it easy compared to other prisons around the world. Any attempted escape would result in relocation to harsher and stricter prisons, making inmates sure to follow the rules.
San Pedro Prison, La Paz, Bolivia
San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, is more than a prison; it is a pseudo society run by the inmates. The facility is unconventional, allowing women and children to live within the prison with their convicted husbands, and even having inmates buy or rent their cells for the duration of their stay. Some of these cells are quite luxurious, with a private bathroom, kitchen, cable, and sometimes even a jacuzzi.
The prisoners have also established laws and rules within the community, going as far as electing leaders and a financial secretary. The latter is needed because of the income inmates accumulate, specifically trafficking narcotics outside of San Pedro.
Rikers Island Prison, New York, United States
Rikers Island is a notoriously violent prison located in New York. The neglect and abuse of inmates, along with the thousands of annual assaults, has given the facility a lot of media attention in the past years. In 2013, Mother Jones magazine ranked the correctional facility as one of the ten worst in the country.
Because of all the violence, Rikers is considered to be one of the strictest prisons in the world. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio began to make plans to shut down the island prison altogether. It was announced in 2019 that the New York City Council voted to shut down the entire complex by 2026.
Landsberg Prison, Landsberg Am Lech, Germany
Built in 1910, Landsberg Prison is located in Landsberg Am Lech, Germany, and is best known as the penitentiary where Adolf Hitler wrote his infamous book and other war criminals were held. During World War II, the United States named the prison “War Criminal Prison No. 1.”
The establishment is no longer used for war criminals, and the rehabilitation services offered have since been updated. The prison is now known as a progressive correctional facility. Thirty-six different vocational training classes are offered to the inmates, such as baking, electrical work, carpentry, and even bricklaying.
San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California
San Quentin State Prison opened in 1852 and is California’s oldest correctional facility. The prison is also the only penitentiary in California to have a death row for male inmates. San Quentin is a notorious prison due to the high-profile criminals who are sentenced there, mostly serial killers such as Wayne Adam Ford and Joseph Naso.
Aside from it having one of the largest death rows in the country, prisoners at San Quentin have some unique programs at their disposal. One such rehabilitation program is The San Quentin News, an inmate-produced newspaper. This type of paper is one of the few in the world and the only one in California.
Evin Prison, Tehran, Iran
Evin Prison is located in Tehran, Iran, and is known for housing political prisoners. Because of the high number of intellectual inmates, the prison even had one of its wings dubbed Evin University. But don’t let the name fool you, this is no school. Evin is known as one of the world’s most brutal prisons, where torture is the norm.
Evin is extremely overcrowded, and there is no air conditioning. In a country where it can get scorching hot, sometimes reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, those two things do not mix. Prisoners are also completely cut off from the outside world, not being allowed phone calls or visits from family.
Quezon City Jail, Quezon City, Manila, Philippines
Quezon City Jail was built for 800 inmates but houses around five times that number. Located in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, this prison is known for its unsanitary conditions due to the dense population — 4,000 people and counting.
The jail has always been overcrowded, but people believe that the recent spike in population is due to the Philippines’ war on drugs. According to an article by CNN, 60 percent of the male prisoners are there on drug-related offenses. Sadly, some of these people are able to go home but don’t have the means to pay bail.
Altiplano Prison, Mexico
Altiplano Prison is a maximum-security prison located in Mexico. It prides itself on being impenetrable, with an outer wall one meter thick and restricted airspace surrounding the facility. It was on July 11, 2015, that the federal prison learned that it wasn’t as impenetrable as it initially thought.
On that day, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, escaped through a tunnel. The escape tunnel was 33 feet under the facility and led to a construction site almost a mile away.
The Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno, Oklahoma
The Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, is a medium-security prison that houses only male inmates. When the prison first opened in 1933, it was a correctional institution for young adults, meaning the inmates there were between the ages of 18 and 26.
It wasn’t until the ’70s that the facility began taking in male prisoners of varying ages. The ‘nice’ thing about this prison is that is has a metal factory and two dairy farms. Both places tend to employ inmates once they are released.
Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa Penitentiary, Manaus, Brazil
Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa penitentiary in the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil, is highly dangerous and violent. The overcrowded facility is known for its fatal prison riots and gang-related turf wars. It doesn’t help that the prison population in the country has quintupled since 1990, the third-largest population in the world, according to the National Justice Council.
Gang-related violence isn’t the only thing that makes Brazillian prisons some of the most violent in the world. The inhumane living conditions, which see multiple people inside tiny cells, are enough for anyone to go insane.
Halden Prison, Norway
Halden Prison is a maximum-security prison located in Norway. And although it might be a prison, it’s not a stereotypical correctional facility. The building was designed by Erik Moller Architects, whose main concept was to build something that resembled a village.
The idea was to rehabilitate the inmates in more of a societal setting instead of in the typical incarceration-type manner. Each cell is 110 square feet, and includes a desk, mini-fridge, flat-screen TV, fully-equipped bathroom, and a window. That’s not all. Each set of 10-12 cells shares a common area with a fully stocked kitchen and living room. It’s known as the world’s most humane prison.
Kresty Prison, St. Petersburg, Russia
Kresty prison is located in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is every bit the stereotypical correctional facility. Originally, the cross-shaped buildings were designed to house no more than 1,150 inmates. However, in the 1990s, there were 12,500 prisoners estimated to be on the inside.
Cells that were meant to be used for solitary confinement were said to be packed with up to 20 people. Thankfully, the prison was shut down with plans to turn the buildings into a hotel and entertainment complex. A new detention center was built, aptly named Kresty 2.
Fortezza Medicea Prison, Italy
Fortezza Medicea prison is located in Italy and is recognizable for something out of the ordinary. The correctional facility is known for one of the most Italian things ever, its food. That’s right, the facility’s food options are comparable to that of an upscale restaurant. Even more surprising is that the inmates prepare each dish.
For the curious foodies out there, the Fortezza Medicea Prison is open to the public, after a hard-core background check. Not that a regular citizen is going to sit down in the cafeteria along with the inmates, but there is a fully-functioning restaurant that serves up the same inmate-made dishes.
Aranjuez Prison, Spain
Aranjuez prison is considered to be a five-star prison for families. Located in Spain, the prison is unlike others over the world because it allows in a secondary group of ‘inmates,’ the prisoners’ families. Inside the walls of Aranjuez, wives and children live with their incarcerated husbands and fathers in 150 square foot cells.
The unusual prison cells also include a private bathroom, something unheard of in the majority of correctional facilities. This family-friendly rehabilitation is in the hopes that children will bond with their fathers and not push them aside after they are released.
Justizzentrum Leoben Prison, Leoben, Austria
Justizzentrum Leoben prison in Austria is unlike any correctional facility in the world, and not just because it looks more like a hybrid luxury hotel and convention center. Designed by Josef Hohensinn in 2004, the building is modern and features floor-to-ceiling windows; some floors even have balconies that allow for a complete view of the outside world. And that’s just the exterior.
Each prison cell has its own bathroom and well as a kitchen area. The grounds also have a gym, basketball courts, and even ping-pong tables in the courtyard. The hope is that a comfortable environment will inspire the inmates to lead better lives once they’re released.
Sark Prison, Guernsey, Island of Sark
Sark prison is the world’s smallest prison. Located on a tiny island between England and France, this “correctional facility” is actually still in use. The local police tend to bring seasonal workers here to sober up after a night out in the tiny town of 500 people.
The small jail is only big enough to allow for two offenders at a time, so it’s safe to say the townspeople aren’t concerned about overcrowding! Built in 1856, Sark is made of bricks, has no windows, and the ventilation is not up to par (meaning there is none).
Cereso Chetumal Prison, Mexico
Cereso Chetumal prison in Mexico is known for its unconventional rehabilitation method, boxing. If inmates are having issues with one another, instead of a fight or riot breaking out, they settle their differences with an old-fashioned boxing match. This might seem to be counter-productive, but the prison hasn’t seen violence in years.
Inmate rehabilitation also includes arts and crafts where they’re encouraged to get creative and sell their pieces to tourists. Unlike other correctional facilities, Cereso Chetumal also allows inmates to wear their own clothing, allowing for a bit of individualism.
Luzira Prison, Kampala, Uganda
A prison in Luzira runs things a little differently than we do in the US, and as such they have better results than both the UK and the US in terms of how their inmates move forward in life. There, inmates have more responsibility, but are also encouraged to learn.
Carpentry skills are taught and aggression tends to be less prevalent. There are fewer guards compared to the UK, and the rate of inmates re-offending is 30%, compared to a whopping 76% in the US.
Onomichi Prison, Onomichi, Japan
Prisons in Japan have a unique factor they face: elderly criminals. According to The Guardian, people over 60-years-old are the fastest-growing group of criminals in Japan; they account for 12% of the prison population there.
As such, the Onomichi Prison houses only seniors, and is made to accommodate their needs. Handrails, soft food, and knitting and sewing work are a few of the modifications they’ve made for their older demographic.
Norgerhaven Prison, Veenhuizen, Netherlands
The Netherlands may have one of the most ideal prison systems, not because their inmates live the lives of luxury, but because there are so few prisoners. There, the crime rates are so low that they agreed in 2015 to take on some of the inmates in Norway.
Since they have an “undercrowding” situation, they can offer more to the prisoners. At Norgerhaven Prison, for example, inmates have a private bathroom, as well as a refrigerator and a television.
HMP Addiewell, Lothian, Scotland
The prison cells at HMP Addiewell are immaculately clean and organized, offering inmates a private bathroom with a door, a bed, desk, and a television. They also are decorated in vibrant colors, a stark contrast to the usual drab decor of prison cells.
The aesthetic of this Scotland prison’s cells mimics the caring attitude of prisoner officials. “Purposeful activities” such as counseling, education, and contact with family and nature are a part of the rehabilitation process offered here.
Black Dolphin Prison, Sol-Iletsk, Russia
Though the name Black Dolphin sounds almost cute, it’s seriously misleading. In reality, the Russian prison is notorious for housing some of the most intense criminals in the area who have committed crimes too brutal to mention.
As such, inmates share a tiny prison cell that’s secured by three sets of steel doors and 24-hour surveillance. The prison is so fierce that it attracted the attention of National Geographic, who did a documentary on the facility.
Champ-Dollon Prison, Geneva, Switzerland
While Switzerland has been a famously neutral country during times of war, they not only have prisoners like the rest of us do, but have an overcrowding problem at the Champ-Dollon Prison. As clean and roomy as it appears, the cells don’t offer much more than a bed in a shared space.
The prison opened in the late ’70s to offer a place for prisoners prior to being sentenced. As such, there were only about 7% Swiss inmates there in 2010, the remaining being comprised of more than 100 different nationalities.
The Las Colinas Detention And Reentry Facility, Santee, California
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility is the color green. That color choice may be intentional, as the facility was re-built in 2014 to help improve the experience and behavior of those inside.
The prison consists of female criminals, predominantly those arrested in San Diego County. The improved facilities emphasize reentry services and educational, vocational, psycho-social, and other programs are offered to inmates.
Abashiri Prison, Abashiri, Japan
The Abashiri Prison in Japan has a similar aesthetic to the other Japanese prison we’ve looked at, the elderly-based Onomichi Prison. They both have simple rooms that offer a few shelves on the wall and folded blankets, but little else.
This prison houses inmates who have a sentence of eight years or less. Still, the rules are extremely strict and a guard inspects the rooms each day. Crimes inside the prison are very limited, and hand-made crafts created by the prisoners are sold in a gift shop outside the main gate.
Penal De Ciudad Barrios, Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador
The Penal de Ciudad Barrios facility in El Salvador is shocking to witness as it packs inmates like sardines into box-sized cells. The prisoners are kept in cage-like structures that stand 12 feet wide and 15 feet tall, but hold more than 30 people at a time.
Its unbelievable structures can somewhat be explained by the fact that the prison was designed for those who only needed to be kept for 72 hours. Still, some prisoners end up here for more than a year.
Skien Prison, Oslo, Norway
Oslo’s Skien Prison in Norway is regarded as one of the most humane prisons in the world. They have a “normalcy policy” that aims to provide a prison experience that’s as similar to ordinary daily life as can be.
What that means is inmates not only enjoy spacious rooms and the ability to do their own cooking and laundry, but also tend to farm animals, play games and sports, enjoy a beach and a ferry to an island, and even have a music studio. That catch is that inmates enter the prison in a high-security area, and phase into these privileges.
Otago Corrections Facility, Milburn, New Zealand
The Otago Corrections Facility has been deemed one of the most luxurious prisons around, thanks to its advantages like a health facility and a library. Similar to the prison we just saw in Norway, they aim to provide a prison experience that mimics ordinary life.
Located near Milton, the facility has been nicknamed the “Milton Hilton” for its relaxing atmosphere and hotel-like features. The rooms have one bright-colored wall, curtains over the window, a television and a desk.
The Maula Prison, Lilongwe, Malawi
While you don’t want to end up in any prison, you really don’t want to end up at the Maula Prison in Malawi. Due to severe overcrowding, 200 people are packed into a 60-person cell, leaving hardly any room to move.
There is one toilet for every 120 people and one tap per every 900. Due to severely limited government funding, inmates receive one meal each day. Men are allowed to play football only and women are only permitted to play basketball.
Haiti’s Civil Prison, Arcahaie, Haiti
Haiti’s Civil Prison is the furthest thing from civil. Their occupancy is at four to five times the limit, leaving 80 to 100 men stuffed into cells at one time. This results in filthy cells and inmates who are literally starving.
To sleep, they either jam four inmates into one bed or create makeshift hammocks hanging from the ceiling. Due to these tight quarters, diseases are prevalent. Many inmates end up passing away before they get the chance to stand trial.
UN Detention Unit, Outside The Hague, Netherlands
The United Nations Detention Unit in the Netherlands is the International Criminal Court detention center where individuals are punished for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The facility jails both those who are waiting for trial and those serving sentences.
This image shows the cell’s many amenities, including a wash area, a computer, a television, shelves, and a bed. Soothing blue tones give the room a relaxing tone. Inmates can also cook for themselves and have access to a PE instructor.
Petak Island Prison, Vologda, Russia
Sometimes called the “Alcatraz of Russia,” the Petak Island Prison contains some of the most brutal criminals in the country. Two men share each cell, which is equipped with a television, desk, and a bed.
The prisoners experience a 22.5 hour lockdown and are allowed only two visitors every year. Since the facility sits on an island surrounded by the freezing cold lake, the prison is virtually impossible to break out of.
HM Prison Dartmoor, Princetown, England
Though HM Prison Dartmoor in England is just about impossible to escape from, it predominantly houses non-violent offenders. The largely white-collar criminals are offered behavior-changing treatment with medicine.
Inmates must apply for family days, which take place monthly and offers a range of activities during a two-hour visit. The prisoners each have individual rooms and access to skills and education training, as well as employment opportunities and the option to earn vocational qualifications.
El Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, Bogota, Colombia
The El Buen Pastor women’s prison translates to “the good prison,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, overcrowding has bred a stomping ground of corruption and violence.
Despite the volatile environment that was largely created by its prisoners, the jail attempts to improve the situation by providing a yearly beauty pageant and parade. Still, that’s hardly enough to mask the issues that come with 10-20 women being crammed into a space built for two.
Neve Tirza, Ramla, Israel
Neve Tirza is an all-women’s prison in Israel that has tiny, 13 square meter cells equipped with their own toilet and shower. Only 1% of the criminals in Israel are women, and they are all kept in this single prison.
The facility opened in 1968 and has only a little more than 200 female inmates. Though the number of prisoners being kept here is relatively low, the lack of cells leads to overcrowding and women having to share beds.
Bordeaux Prison, Montreal, Canada
The Bordeaux Prison in Canada opened in 1912 and was built to house 500 inmates, though these days it holds more than double that amount. The complex is surrounded by a double wall and houses male inmates serving less than two years.
The cell is equipped with a bed, a small desk, a window, a toilet, and a sink. These amenities angered the public at first, but attitudes toward prisoners have changed in years since.
Kashimpur Central Jail, Gazipur, Bangladesh
The Kashimpur Central Jail in Bangladesh sits on 35 acres with an additional 48.5 acres of outdoor space. There are four housing units for inmates surrounded by 44 buildings that house officers and staff members.
The prisoners have access to four kitchens, a pond, and a fruit and vegetable garden. There is also a hospital on-site with 200 beds. The facility has the capacity to hold 2,000 prisoners, but only holds 1,200 at the moment.