Historical Sinope Prison, Sinop, Turkey
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Eerie Abandoned Prisons Around the World

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Historical Sinope Prison, Sinop, Turkey
erosera/istockphoto

Time Served

When prisoners finish their sentences, they move on. The prisons that keep them locked up do, too. Newer, larger facilities replace outdated ones. But, the high walls, locked gates, and watch towers of previously used jails and penitentiaries remain. The creepy compounds may give you chills as you imagine them housing dangerous criminals, but they’re even more eerie when you learn about the grisly events that happened within their walls and the spirits of prisoners past who may have stuck around. If you’re interested in visiting, plan ahead. Some facilities organize guided tours regularly, while others offer limited-time seasonal events. Still others are off-limits and can only be seen from afar.


Related: Unusual Abandoned Places Across America

Wyoming Frontier Prison
powerofforever/istockphoto

Wyoming Frontier Prison

Rawlins   

Prisoners who landed in what is now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison dealt with bracing conditions. The prison, open in 1901, had no electricity or running water, and very little in the way of heating to warm the barracks against Wyoming winters. A total of 13,500 people made their way through the facility — though some met their ends there. In 1916, the prison added a “death house” for inmates on death row. It carried out 14 death sentences over its history. Eighty years in, the prison doors clanged shut for good. It reopened as a museum in 1988, and it now offers tours of the historic cell blocks.

Fort Delaware Corner
roc8jas/istockphoto

Fort Delaware

Delaware City   

During the Civil War, more than 12,500 Confederate prisoners of war were housed at Fort Delaware. The fort’s relatively remote location on Sea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River made it a good choice to house prisoners. The fort was originally built in 1859 to insulate Wilmington and Philadelphia from attack. During tours today, interpreters in period regalia help visitors time travel to summer 1864 by bringing to life the parade ground, officers’ quarters, and barracks. Along the way, you’ll likely hear a few ghost stories. The fort is well known for paranormal activity, and it offers themed tours in the fall.

 

Related: The Most Terrifying Haunted Houses in America

Prison and museum
NoDerog/istockphoto

West Virginia Penitentiary

Moundsville 

If you’ve ever wanted to spend the night in prison — without the criminal record to go with it — you can at the West Virginia Penitentiary. Built in 1866 and put out of commission in 1995, the former state pen is known for paranormal activity. It welcomes amateur ghost-hunters for overnight investigations where visitors can look for the prisoners who still haunt the Gothic-style structure. The prison’s history includes riots, fires, and executions of some 100 prisoners. The walls are 5 feet thick at the bottom, so once you find yourself inside, it may be difficult to get out, unless you join one of the escape-room experiences that are also offered here.  

 

Related: Haunted Destinations That You Can Rent for a Spooky Night

The prison.
The prison. by CosmiCataclysm (CC BY-SA)

Missouri State Penitentiary

Jefferson City

In service from 1836 to 2004, Time magazine once called the Missouri State Penitentiary “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” The prison earned this nickname in part during the 1954 prison riot that left four inmates dead and 50 injured. Several famous inmates spent time here, including bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and boxer Charles “Sonny” Liston, who served time for robbery with a deadly weapon. The spirits of some inmates are said to still roam the halls, which visitors can learn more about during ghost tours and overnight paranormal investigations.


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Exterior of the facility
Exterior of the facility by Mike Sharp (CC BY-SA)

The Ohio State Reformatory

Mansfield

The world’s most famous prison movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” was filmed at The Ohio State Reformatory. Visitors can still see intact sets today when visiting the reformatory that dates to 1896. Although the prison initially opened with the goal of reforming its residents, by the 1960s it was converted to a maximum-security facility. The prisoners found the conditions to be so inhumane that, in the 1980s, they sued the state. These poor conditions, especially in solitary confinement, led to deaths — and, it is said, subsequent hauntings. Ghost hunters have reported seeing shadows, hearing audible voices and footsteps, and even having spirits grab them during tours.


Related: 50 Iconic Movie Locations Around the World

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California
NNehring/istockphoto

Alcatraz

San Francisco  

Set on an island in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz has been home to a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal prison. Today, the National Park Service runs the facility and thousands of visitors parade through here each year. However, in its time, it was an impenetrable and (mostly) inescapable fortress that earned the nickname “the Rock.” One of Alcatraz’s most famous inmates was gangster Al Capone, who is said to have taken up the banjo during his time there. Occasionally, visitors report hearing banjo music emanating from the bathroom where he once practiced.

 

Related: Where America's Most Famous Outlaws Are Buried

Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary
Wikimedia Commons

Wyoming Territorial Prison

Laramie 

As Wyoming’s first state penitentiary, the Wyoming Territorial Prison operated for 30 years beginning in 1872. Today, it’s a state park and public facility, but it once housed dangerous criminals. Butch Cassidy, a leader of a frontier gang of thieves, was among the prisoners. The inmates’ stories hit close to home on tours, during which visitors adopt the identity of an inmate.

Yuma territorial prison
Tashka/istockphoto

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park

Yuma, Arizona

Prisoners are often conscripted into work while serving their sentences. The inmates’ first duties at Yuma Territorial Prison in 1876 were building their own cells. After 33 years as Arizona’s first prison, the overcrowded prison was closed in favor of a newer facility in nearby Florence. The prison’s past isn’t all bad. It has been used by various groups over the years, including a local high school whose sports teams became known as The Criminals, a county hospital, and housing for families during the Great Depression. Open as a state park since 1961, the site preserves strap-iron cells and solitary confinement chambers. Public tours teach guests about how prisoners survived harsh conditions such as the desert heat.  


Related: 18 Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Wild West

Towers and walls at old penitentiary in Boise ID
PhilAugustavo/istockphoto

Old Idaho Penitentiary

Boise 

When it was built in 1870, the Old Idaho Penitentiary’s inmates were rough and rowdy cowboys living in the Wild West. When it was decommissioned a hundred years later, it had seen all manner of robbers, murders, and other convicted felons, including its most famous female inmate Lyda Southard, who served time for the murder of her fourth husband — though all her previous husbands had died under suspicious circumstances, too. Some visitors have said they felt paranormal activity here, including hearing voices or a sense of heaviness, particularly in “Siberia” (solitary confinement) and the Gallows Room, both of which are part of the public tours offered here.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia
Amy Sparwasser/istockphoto

Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary’s cell blocks and guard towers are disintegrating, but it was once the most expensive prison in the world. Even with that accolade in mind, you may find Al Capone’s cell here surprising. It’s outfitted with fine furniture and rugs, paintings, and a radio. Not all aspects of the asterisk-shaped building dating to 1829 are so genteel. It was built to resemble a castle so, according to its architect, it would, “strike fear into the hearts of those who thought of committing a crime.”

Abandoned Old Joliet Correctional Center Prison in Illinois
snikeltrut/istockphoto

Old Joliet Prison Historic Site

Joliet, Illinois

Inmates built Old Joliet Prison, aka Old Joliet Prison Historic Site. In 1858, 53 inmates were responsible for quarrying the limestone that built the Gothic structure that later housed generations of convicts. Prisoners experienced dangerous and unsanitary conditions in the overcrowded cells, and petitions called for the facility to close long before its 2002 decommissioning. Tours devoted to history, including the macabre, visit the prison today.

This photo is of a recreation yard within the housing unit now referred to as the "Old Main."
This photo is of a recreation yard within the housing unit now referred to as the "Old Main." by Ken Piorkowski (CC BY-SA)

New Mexico State Penitentiary

Santa Fe 

One of the most violent prison riots in U.S. history took place at the old New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1980. At the end of the 36-hour riot, 33 inmates were dead (and in some cases they had been tortured prior to their deaths) because they had informed on other inmates to prison guards. Today, ax marks in the concrete still testify to the violence that occurred there. The prison closed after the riot. Now Old Main, as it is also known, is only open for special tours by the New Mexico Department of Corrections. It’s occasionally used as a set for films and TV shows.

Front of old maximum security prison
karenfoleyphotography/istockphoto

Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Petros, Tennessee

When Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened its doors in 1896, it quickly enacted a prison work program that required inmates to work in coal mines by day. In the cold, overcrowded jail conditions, diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid fever, pneumonia ran rampant, which only caused prisoners to be beaten when they couldn’t meet their quotas in the mines. Countless prisoners died amid these dismal conditions. Over its 113-year history, Brushy earned a reputation for housing the worst of the worst prisoners; it was the end of the line. One of its most famous inmates was James Earl Ray, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin. The privately operated facility has reopened for tours; often former guards and prisoners lead groups through the grimy halls reliving their personal experiences with knife fights and other prison-yard happenings.

Old Pottawattamie County Jail on the NRHP
Old Pottawattamie County Jail on the NRHP by Smallbones (CC BY)

Pottawattamie County Jail

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Built in 1885, this unusual jail earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It is one of only 18 “squirrel cage” or “lazy Susan” jails built. The design allows a single guard to observe multiple inmates by turning a crank to rotate and move the cells. “This building has had such a colorful past. There were a lot of inmates here. Everyone’s angry. Everyone wants to get out. And that energy seeps into the walls,” says paranormal investigator Sarah Stream in a video about the site. Today, it's operated as a museum.

The Old Charleston Jail is now used as a school for building trades.
The Old Charleston Jail is now used as a school for building trades. by ProfReader (CC BY-SA)

Old Charleston Jail

Charleston, South Carolina

In Charleston’s cheerful, colorful cityscape, the gray, castle-like structure of the Old City Jail stands out as a somber reminder of history. From 1802 to its 1939 decommissioning, numerous people died within its walls, and it now claims the dubious accolade of being the city’s most haunted building. Guided tours discuss the prison's various former inmates, which have included pirates, enslaved people, Civil War prisoners, and thieves. The paranormal activity here has been featured on TV shows like Ghost Adventures.

Atlanta Prison Farm
Atlanta Prison Farm by MFer Photography (CC BY-ND)

Atlanta Prison Farm

Atlanta

Today, the Atlanta Prison Farm, aka the Honor Farm, can be seen on a bike ride through a park-like area of Dekalb County. The prison is a graffiti-covered ghost town today, but from 1917 to 1965 it was an operating penitentiary and farm. Inmates who worked the farm had not committed dangerous crimes and generally had short sentences. Despite the seemingly bucolic nature of the area, inmates still contended with overcrowding, a lack of health care, harsh work conditions, and deaths. Some researchers say people were buried in unmarked pauper’s graves.

 

Related: Spooky Ghost Towns Across America

Pentridge Prison Gate Number 1 2020
Pentridge Prison Gate Number 1 2020 by Michael J Fromholtz (CC BY-SA)

Her Majesty's Prison Pentridge

Australia

Australia is known for its 18th- and 19th-century penal colonies. The bluestone walls of Pentridge Prison came after these foundational camps, but it was no less influential over the country. Built in 1858-59, and the design included quite civilized sounding “airing yards” that allowed inmates time in sunlight and fresh air. However, prisoners were not allowed to congregate or speak during these outings, and they wore hessian hoods (head coverings with slots to see out of) to discourage communication. Tours of the facilities and grounds are slated to start this year.

Historical Sinope Prison, Sinop, Turkey
erosera/istockphoto

Sinop Fortress Prison

Turkey

Parts of this historic prison date to the Byzantine and Roman empires proving that people have been imprisoning each other for a very long time. The current building dates to 1887, which ranks it as one of the oldest prisons in Turkey. The “Alcatraz of Anatolia” shut down in 1999 after locking up several controversial Turkish thought-leaders during its tenure. Two decades previously, a riot shut down part of the building. It’s open today for tours.

Procida - Glimpse of Palazzo D'Avalos from the panoramic terrace of Via Borgo
lucamato/istockphoto

Isle of Procida Jail

Italy 

Part of the Palazzo d’Avalos compound built in the 16th century, this building functioned as Italy’s most notorious prison from 1830 to 1988. In the 1940s, during a trip to Italy, American novelist Truman Capote remarked on the jail’s prominence in local culture calling the area “prison island.” Like Alcatraz, the prisons here had great ocean views, but that temping scenery also made escape nearly impossible from this fortress. Inmates were packed into rooms, leading to discomfort and rampant diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis. Once home to Italy’s most notorious criminals, the crumbling prison is open for public tours.

Bodmin Jail cell block
allou/istockphoto

Bodmin Jail

England

Opened to the public for interactive tours in 2020, Bodmin Jail re-creates for modern-day visitors what it was like to live inside the jail. Built in 1779 under King George III, it housed inmates in grimy conditions, and guards issued backbreaking punishments. Although much of this facility is now polished and museum-like, some places can’t be sugar-coated, such as the only working hanging pit in the U.K. where 55 prisoners met their ends.

Adelaide Gaol Yard 4 cell block
Adelaide Gaol Yard 4 cell block by Peripitus (CC BY-SA)

Old Adelaide Gaol

Australia

During its 147 years in operation, Old Adelaide Gaol housed 300,000 people — including 45 who were executed here and buried on the grounds. These hangings were public and attracted crowds in the thousands. After crowds were later banned, the prison’s bell would toll to indicate that a hanging was in progress. Several of the inmates who were hung are said to haunt the site today. The prison is open for tours.

Old Entrance and Stone Wall of Kilmainham Gaol (Prison) in Dublin Ireland
Min Jing/istockphoto

Kilmainham Gaol

Ireland

Although most of the inmates in Kilmainham Gaol were held for minor offenses, the jail also held some of the most important figures in Ireland’s fight for independence. Fourteen members of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed by firing squad in the Stonebreaker’s yard here, for example. It opened in 1796 and closed in 1924, when it was preserved as a national monument because of its importance in the country’s history. Visits are only available via scheduled tours.  


Related: 30 Free Things to Do in Ireland