The List: The World’s Most Notorious Prisons

With President Obama expected to announce the closing of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay within days, here's a look at five of the most brutal and controversial prisons that are still in operation around the world.


La Sant

Country: France

Conditions: The last remaining prison in Paris — it’s located near the Montparnasse area — was established in 1867 and has housed everyone from surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire to legendary assassin Carlos the Jackal. The prison’s name, which means health, might seem ironic considering the conditions inside. Mattresses are infested with lice, and because prisoners are only allowed two cold showers per week, skin diseases are common. Overcrowded cells, rat infestations, rape, and the humiliation of prisoners’ families were also common.

In 1999 there were 124 suicide attempts in La Sant, almost five times as many as in California’s entire prison system during the same period. These facts only became available in 2000 when the head surgeon of the prison, Vronique Vasseur, published a bestselling book chronicling abuses in the prison. The book caused an uproar and a celebrity campaign to improve prisons throughout France, but little in the way of progress. France’s prison conditions were condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the country’s own minister of justice in 2008.

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Black Beach

Country: Equatorial Guinea

Conditions: An Amnesty International official described incarceration in this prison, located on a volcanic island, as a slow, lingering death sentence. Torture, including burning, beatings, and rape is systematic and brutal. Food rations are so minimal — prisoners sometimes go up to six days without food — that death from starvation is common. Amnesty also reports that inmates are routinely denied access to medical treatment or visits from the outside.

The prison received international notoriety last year when British mercenary Simon Mann (left) was sentenced to 34 years in Black Beach for plotting to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s government. Mann’s lawyers tried to fight his extradition to the country on the grounds that he would likely be tortured or killed, but to no avail.


Vladimir Central Prison

Country: Russia

Conditions: This gloomy edifice in central Russia was constructed by Catherine the Great to house political prisoners and today mostly houses violent criminals. Among the famous inmates here were Stalin’s son, Vasily Dzhugashvili, dissident Natan Sharansky, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who was shot down in 1963. After World War II, the Soviets took uniforms from Nazi death camps in liberated Poland and used them for prisoners in Vladimir. The prison’s uniforms are based on that design to this day. During the Soviet era, the prison’s name became synonymous with persecution of political dissidents.

Today, the prison also bizarrely functions as a museum for the public. Visitors are not actually allowed into the penitentiary, but can be shown around specially vacated bunkers that mimic prison life and display personal items of some of the famous prisoners of the past. Behind the display, however, conditions at Vladimir remain as tough as ever. Prisoners are packed six to a cell and reports of abuse by guards are common. HIV and tuberculosis are also rampant.


Camp 1391

Country: Israel

Conditions: Officially, Camp 1391 does not exist, but descriptions of its conditions have filtered out to the media. The Red Cross is not allowed to visit, and prisoners have no idea where they are being kept or when they might be released. 1391 is often called Israel’s Guantnamo, but unlike the American facility, it’s not on a remote overseas military base. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.

1391 was created by the British as a detention center for Jews and Arabs plotting against the colonial government, but it wasn’t until 2004 that an Israeli historian studying old maps for a journal article discovered that it still existed. The discovery of the secret facility for interrogating suspected terrorists set off a media firestorm in Israel. Like the U.S. facility at Abu Ghraib, sexual humiliation and even rape are reportedly used as interrogation techniques on the mostly Muslim prisoners at 1391. But former inmates say that isolation and uncertainty are the worst tortures of all. You begin to feel like the jail exists only for you, that no one else is there, one told Newsweek.


The North Korean Gulag

Country: North Korea

Conditions: Up to 200,000 prisoners are held in Kim Jong Il’s detention centers. One of these, Haengyong, is bigger than the District of Columbia and houses more than 50,000 inmates. Entire families and even neighborhoods are sent here as punishment for the infraction of one member. In some camps, up to 25 percent of the prisoners die every year, only to be replaced by new inmates. Most of the camps are located along the North Korean border with China and Russia, and prisoners are subjected to harsh weather conditions as well as inhumane treatment.

Almost all of what’s known about these camps comes from defectors such as Shin Dong-hyuk (right), a prisoner born in Camp No. 14 in 1982 after his parents were imprisoned for having relatives who fled the country. He lived his entire life inside the camp until escaping in 2006. Shin watched guards execute both of his parents for trying to break out. He was also beaten for their crime. To date, Shin is the only known person to have escaped from Camp No. 14.

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