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The worst prisons in the United States

Barbed wire outside of a prison

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.

The United States of America is a prison nation with just shy of two million American citizens behind bars. The complex interconnected penal system is wrought with large-scale issues that see widespread corruption, innocent people in jail, poor living conditions, violence, suicide and murder. Given that this is the reality, it’s no surprise that some of the nation’s prisons and jails come with a really rather terrifying reputation.

These are America’s worst prisons:

ADX Florence

The ‘administrative maximum facility’ USP Florence ADMAX, generally known as 'ADX Florence', is a giant facility in the mountainous state of Colorado. Spread over almost 50 acres of land, it was the first example of what's now called the 'supermax' prison and was built to house the USA's most dangerous inmates. As of summer 2023, the facility is home to 316 prisoners (although it can take 551), all of whom are confined to 23 hours of cell time a day under 24-hour supervision.

Visitors to 'The Alcatraz of The Rockies' report an almost eerie level of quiet inside ADX Florence. That's because it is now, arguably, the single most secure prison facility on the face of the planet. This wasn't always the case, however. In 2012, several of the prison's inmates filed a lawsuit citing that the place fostered and encouraged a culture of torture and abuse.

Over the years, notorious figures such as Mexican drug lord El Chapo, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, jihadist Abu-Hamza and Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been imprisoned there. Along with a litany of other high-profile criminals including spies, serial killers, terrorists and mobsters.


Parchman Farm, aka Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP), is a dangerous place to be. Not just for its 4,840 inmates, but for the staff at the facility too. ‘The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,’ said the US Department of Justice in a 2020 report. They summed up their assessment by concluding that Parchman's conditions are so bad that they actually violate the United States Constitution.

A large part of the problem is that those supposedly in charge of MSP, are not. Instead, the gangs inside run the place. Prison gang control leads to shocking violence, attacks and murders. Guards and staff have, according to the DoJ report, long since given up on protecting inmates or attempting to prevent assaults, killings or suicides. Prolonged isolation is commonplace. Mental health treatment and rehabilitation is not.

Such issues are hardly new. Parchman Farm has had a reputation as one of America's worst prisons for decades. Insufficient staffing, poor investigative practices and lax contraband controls all play their part. Murders and riots have been commonplace in recent years. Prison reform advocates have been calling for the place to close down for years.


It was the worst, most deadly, prison uprising ever. Across five days in September 1971, 39 people (29 inmates and 10 prison guards) died in what’s gone on to be labelled variously as ‘The Attica Prison Uprising’, ‘The Attica Prison Riot’ and ‘The Attica Prison Massacre’.

The unrest was brought about by inmates who had reached breaking point with the New York State prison’s dreadful living conditions. Though the riot came with a heavy toll, it did bring about change. The Attica Correctional Facility of today is not the Attica Correctional Facility of old. That’s not to say that it’s a bed of roses, though.

There may well be improved cells, learning programs and new facilities at Attica, but there are also heightened security measures. Chief among them is a high-tech tear gas deployment system throughout the facility which is able to quell any organised rioting.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island is a 413-acre site on its own little island in New York City’s East River. It has an annual budget of almost $900 million and a staff of nearly 10,000 officers. Rikers Island is known for violence and the abuse and neglect of its inmates by guards and frequent assaults by inmates on uniformed officers and other civilian staff.

Not only does Rikers see inmate violence and staff brutality, there’s also rape, maltreatment of mentally ill inmates and one of the worst rates of solitary confinement in the country. Rikers, which houses 10 different prisons, has been the subject of countless exposés and lawsuits in its time.

Leaked photographs show cramped cells littered with inmates in what amounts to truly hellish conditions. What makes matters all the worse is that those locked up in Rikers Island aren’t the most feared, dangerous or violence-prone felons in the USA. In fact, most haven’t even been found guilty of a crime. A whopping 85% of inmates are pre-trial, having not yet been convicted.