Skip to main content

The most dangerous prisons in the United States

San Quentin State Prison
Image: San Quentin State Prison in California | Eric Broder Van Dyke /

Exposing Parchman is an investigative docuseries that follows the efforts to reform the Mississippi correctional system. In December 2019, Parchman began to make national headlines for its large death toll attributable to violence and neglect. Exposing Parchman is available to stream now on Crime + Investigation Play.

America’s prison system is notorious due to the number of escapes, riots and a general sense that it’s not a safe environment. Here we’re looking more closely at some of the most dangerous prisons in the USA and how they’ve gained their infamous reputations.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island in New York has perhaps the most violent reputation of all US prisons. Journalists and investigative reporters have time and again confirmed that the prisoners are subjected to severe punishments and conditions which are far from safe. The conditions understandably lead to discontent which causes prisoners and guards to regularly clash.

Rikers Island is also known for housing many high-profile inmates including sex offender Harvey Weinstein, Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz and Mark Chapman, notorious for shooting John Lennon. Rikers Island may have calmed a little in recent years but there are still reports of inmate deaths and attacks.

Marion United States Penitentiary

USP Marion is a former supermax jail in Illinois. It opened in 1963 and was built as a replacement for another prison with a torrid past, Alcatraz. Marion’s reputation has got worse over the years, but issues came to a head in the 1980s. The most violent event in the history of the prison took place in October 1983.

Two guards were violently murdered by the Aryan Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi prison gang. The severity of this incident meant the prison went into permanent lockdown and became used as a ‘control unit’ by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners found themselves almost always in solitary confinement in their cells, for up to 23 hours a day.

San Quentin State Prison

The San Quentin State Prison in California is one of the oldest prisons in the whole of the country. It has a long and notorious history of violent crime, riots, rape, and gang activity. It is also home to California’s only death row for male inmates.

One of the main reasons San Quentin has developed such a dangerous reputation is its overcrowding problem which had led to dangerous standards of living. The most recent major events at San Quentin took place in 2005 where over 80 inmates fought until more than 50 riot officers were brought in to stop the fighting.

Parchman Farm

The Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm, is a maximum-security prison and the oldest in the whole of the state. It has a chequered history with links to Jim Crow’s segregation activities and several serious incidents throughout its existence. In 1972, four Parchman inmates even took legal action against the superintendent for violating their right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

To this day, Parchman has a dangerous reputation, with gang rivalry dominating its problems as well as chronic underfunding.

Cook County Jail

Known as the jail which held both Al Capone and John Wayne Gacy, Cook County Jail is one of the biggest prisons in the whole of America. From overcrowding and rats to attacks on prison guards and fights between inmates, everything you want to avoid in a prison is going on at Cook County. Everything about Cook County Jail appears to be inefficient and prisoners’ reactions and behaviour are often in response to this.

Interesting facts about the US prison system

1. There are over 2.3 million Americans in prison

The population of the US is around 331 million and 2.3 million of these people are living in one of the nation’s many jails. There are 1,719 state prisons in America but also 102 federal prisons, 3,163 local jails and 901 juvenile correction facilities.

2. Nearly 25% of the world’s prison population is in the USA

The US makes up about 5% of the world’s total population yet their prisoners make up nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. Whether this is a judgement on America’s judicial system or the differences between different nations, it is a worry that such a large proportion of all jailed people reside in the USA.

3. Women in prison increases year-on-year

The majority of prisoners in the USA are men, but female numbers are increasing. Since 2000, records suggest that the total number of women serving time in American prisons has increased by around 50%, while the male prison population has grown by approximately 18%.

4. US prison system costs over $80bn per year

$80 billion is the approximate figure released as the cost of running all federal, state and local jails. While this figure is very high, it doesn’t take into account the additional costs that come with managing prisoners and ex-prisoners. Many prisoners go on to reoffend and those who don’t often struggle to find work, housing and other essentials to live regular lives.