​Annals of True Crime: The Most Infamous Prisons in America


In the pages of true crime history books, there are infamous crimes, infamous cases and, inevitably, infamous prisoners. The institutions where these notorious murderers, mobsters and swindlers were locked up naturally become infamous too.

It’s the particularly shocking crimes, and the criminals themselves, that earn some penitentiaries the infamy award. But it’s also the conditions, the big-screen depictions and the escape attempts that make these clinks so canonical.

Folsom State Prison

California’s second-oldest prison, Folsom Prison, earns a spot on the list for its historically harsh conditions. The prison was built in 1880 and quickly became known as one of the state’s most unwelcoming, due to its dungeon-like cells and solid metal doors.

A laundry list of escape attempts, violent riots, and Hollywood depictions have earned Folsom some serious street cred over the years. Its famous inmates have helped, too. Folsom housed crafty criminals like Charles Manson, Erik Menendez, and serial killer Edmund Kemper. Johnny Cash famously played concerts at Folsom and recorded a song titled “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Sing Sing Correctional Facility

Originally published in Sing Sing Prison

Located 30 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River, Sing Sing has an almost 200-year-long history of confining many of the most dangerous mobsters, murderers, and spies in the region. But Sing Sing’s reputation isn’t all hard love.

In fact, in the 1920s, warden Lewis Lawes transformed it into one of the most progressive prisons of the time. The Yankees traveled there to play against the prison’s own team, and Lawes developed gardens and educational programs for inmates. Despite this, Sing Sing played host to many frightening convicts, including notorious serial killers Albert Fish, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), and Gary Evans, as well as gangster Gerhard Puff.

Portsmouth Naval Prison

If you think civilian clinks are scary, then you’ll be shocked to hear the tales of torture, redemption and violence that occurred at Portsmouth Naval Prison in Kittery, Maine. The now-shuttered medieval prison served as the “Alcatraz of the East” between 1908 and 1974, during which time it cemented its reputation as a dungeon of punishment.

Like Alcatraz, Portsmouth was built on an island to deter potential escapees, with the strong, quick currents of the Piscatagua River keeping inmates at bay. This didn’t deter some from trying, but only one was successful. Allegedly, an AWOL soldier convicted of selling drugs escaped by sawing through the prison’s bars and sailing across the river, all while guards watched TV.

Rikers Island Prison Complex

Serving as New York City’s main jail since 1935, Rikers Island is the only prison on our list that’s a city jail, not a state prison. The Bronx prison houses an average of 10,000 prisoners daily, with approximately 85 percent of them not yet convicted of a crime.

Rikers has been accused of running a system favoring violence, brutality, and neglect. Before a landmark 1986 ruling, all prisoners taken to the facility, even those accused of minor crimes, were strip-searched. Many reports have pointed to cases of extreme violence, inmate authority, sexual assault, and guard brutality within the prison’s gates.

It also has a reputation for overusing solitary confinement, even for underage prisoners. Over the years, Rikers has housed many famed rule-breakers, including Lil Wayne, Sid Vicious, Tupac Shakur, Mark David Chapman, and Sonny Rollins.

San Quentin State Prison

Located just north of San Francisco, San Quentin is California’s oldest prison. It was founded in 1852 and served as a notoriously violent and dangerous facility until torture as a method of interrogation was banned there in 1944. But what makes this facility particularly haunting is that it houses the majority of California’s death row criminals and has the largest death row population in America.

In 2015, San Quentin’s Condemned Unit, otherwise known as death row, held some 700 inmates waiting for execution, more than Florida and Texas. Additionally, all executions in California must occur at San Quentin’s execution facility. Thus, some of the state’s most ruthless killers, like Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker) and William Richard Bradford, were executed here, and terrifying criminals, like Charles Ng, William Suff, Chester Turner, still await execution today.

More Fascinating True Crime Tales

America’s crime history is an important part of our overall history. It tells a story of both humanity and inhumanity and shapes the way that we view the justice system today. Make sure to explore our complete selection of historical crime books for more fascinating tales from these notorious facilities.