- #1: US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (USP ADX) (Colorado)
- #2: Allan B. Polunsky Unit (Texas)
- #3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix)
- #4: Orleans Parish (Louisiana)
- #5: LA County Jail (Los Angeles)
- #6: Pelican Bay (California)
- #7: Julia Tutwiler (Alabama)
- #8: Reeves Country Detention Complex (Texas)
- #9: Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Mississippi)
- #10: Rikers Island (New York City)
- #11: Dishonorable Mentions
Read on for the lowdown on the crème de la crème: US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), “a federal isolation facility that’s ‘pretty close’ to hell.”
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. (Prisoner Jack Powers. Bacote et al. v. BOP)
Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it 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 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.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, 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…
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