Obviously security is the point of all prisons, but some are just over the top. With emerging technology now geared for control, they’re only becoming more extreme. Here’s a rundown of the 10 worst offenders, as well as some ways to get out…
10. Mumbai Central Prison (aka Arthur Road Jail)
Built by the British a century ago on the outskirts of ’20s Bombay, Arthur Road Jail has since been engulfed by the city. Nowadays commuters can peer inside the prison from the monorail that passes close by — which, given the jail’s chronic overcrowding, is a view that officials want blocked.
As of 2020, prisoners numbered more than 2,000 over max capacity. There’s barely enough floor space to sleep on and disease like dengue fever is rife. For many forced to live here, solitary confinement is a blessing. In fact, according to one imprisoned gangster, they’re willing to pay for the upgrade.
Still, the ultra-secure and highly secretive anda cells are said to be many times worse. Dark and windowless with poor ventilation, their only view is of the hallway outside. Even the yard has no view of the sky. As one prisoner mused, it “resembles an enormous, airtight concrete egg,” but with the crucial difference that it’s “impossible to break it open. Rather it’s designed to make inmates crack.” An even more secure cell, built in 2009, has a 20-foot bomb-proof tunnel leading to a courtroom for trial.
Nobody has ever escaped the anda cell block at Mumbai. But in 2017, within days of arrival, an inmate escaped the main prison. Climbing up a scaffold for a new block’s construction, the not-yet-malnourished 27-year-old topped the outer wall and jumped 22 feet to the street. Sadly, though, he landed on a police van, injuring himself, and was swiftly returned to the prison. The wall has since been heightened and electrified.
9. Portlaoise Prison
Because of its large number of Irish Republican paramilitants (seen by many as prisoners of war), Portlaoise depends on several unusual security features. The most blatant today is the army; soldiers armed with anti-aircraft machine guns are permanently patrolling the grounds.
But this is also the only jail to use bribery for security too, giving in to inmates’ demands to get them to stay where they are. In the 1970s, protests and hunger strikes were a common occurrence among the paramilitant inmates. They even held some of the guards captive, forcing the government to send in the troops. Their demands were simple enough: better healthcare, education, and food, as well as the segregation of political and non-political prisoners. But it took an explosive escape to show just how serious they were.
In August 1974, more than 25 inmates — dressed in makeshift guard uniforms to confuse the troops — stole keys to the yard and blew up the gate with a bomb. 19 got out while their captured comrades wreaked havoc for the guards back inside, further delaying a headcount. Despite a major search involving the navy, the 19 got clean away.
Paramilitants now have E Block to themselves and don’t eat the same as other inmates. Whatever they fancy they put on a list and the guards run and get it for their table.
8. Qincheng (aka the Tigers’ Cage)
An hour’s drive from Beijing, Qincheng is described as a prison for the “fallen elite.” Its most famous inmate was Chairman Mao‘s widow Jiang Qing. Unlike most Chinese prisons, Qincheng is not answerable to the Ministry of Justice. So while you may have seen Qincheng in the news (e.g. for its shortage of space amid President Xi’s unprecedented purging crusade), reliable details are actually hard to come by.
But what sets this prison apart is the luxury its inmates enjoy — at least if they’re ruling class. Cells are said to have their own bathrooms, washing machines, comfortable beds, and sofas. In some cases, they even have two windows. Inmates also get to wear their own clothes. Best of all, when they tire of walking the grounds unaccompanied or growing fruit and vegetables in the garden, they can slap around the guards all they like. The food is luxurious, too, made by top hotel chefs in Beijing.
Despite its luxury (again, for some), this is a serious prison. Most inmates are constantly watched and few see the sky from their cells. When they do get to see it, on “exercise” time, they’re pacing up and down in a courtyard with guards patrolling on top.
So how to escape? Well maybe, just maybe, with patience — which is something tigers don’t lack. As luck would have it, Qincheng was built near a previously unknown fault zone. And during the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 (the most destructive in human history), prisoners were evacuated to tents.
7. Fuchu Prison
If you ever break the law in Japan, make sure you never get caught. With more than 40 countries represented, Fuchu is where you’ll end up.
Although it’s far from supermax by American standards, life here is heavily restricted. Instead of high-tech security measures, bizarre and often arbitrary rules enforce a strange psychological compliance. For example, talking is generally kept to a minimum, even during visits, and looking up at meal times is forbidden. There’s also 44 hours of compulsory labor each week. Prisoners can’t even sit how they like, but in accordance with the chart in their cell.
Breaking the rules leads to solitary confinement: kneeling on the floor of a cell for 10 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time. The only respite, aside from sleep, is a toilet break twice a day.
In Fuchu’s nearly 90-year history there’s never been an escape. And there aren’t many weaknesses either. Perhaps the only hope is that it’s apparently possible (with a special kind of know-how and connections) to secretly build a handgun in the workshop. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that even Japan’s most prolific escapee — who once dissolved hinges with soup — finally met his match in Fuchu Prison.
6. HMP Belmarsh (aka Hellmarsh)
London’s first new prison since Victorian times was built on archaeologically important marshland in 1991. 10 years later it gained notoriety for locking up innocent Muslims, earning the nickname “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.” Today Belmarsh holds WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — also without charge, and in solitary confinement — for exposing US war crimes to the public.
Even the guards are treated like scum, subjected to pat-down searches and airport-style security on their way through the “air-lock” to work.
The prison population is generally mixed, ranging from high-risk to no-risk inhabitants. But deep in the bowels of HMP Belmarsh is the infamous “jail within a jail,” the dreaded High Security Unit: an escape-proof dungeon for spies, paramilitants, and the lovable Charles Bronson. Escapes are unheard of. Even the main prison has only seen one, albeit surprisingly easy. In 1997, an armed robbery suspect posed as his cellmate who was due for release and simply walked out of the gate.
With increased security, that probably won’t work a second time. However, one disgruntled guard revealed a weakness that persists to this day. This being Britain, inmates can boil water for tea in their cells — and the kettles are used against staff. According to the guard, some add sugar to scalding hot water to make sure it sticks to the skin.
5. Maison d’arrêt de la Santé (aka La Santé)
Like the ruined Bastille before it, Paris’s La Santé isn’t just a hellhole; it’s an icon. Right at the heart of trendy Montparnasse, La Santé’s imposing outer wall was, until 1939, the site of public beheadings.
The wall still hosts a multitude of sins. In 2000, La Santé’s own chief medical officer exposed a shocking level of disease, overcrowding, and neglect inside the prison. She called La Santé a “city within the city,” with its own laws, morality (or lack thereof), and unending ultra-violence — ironic for a prison called “health”. Failing to silence her with death threats, humiliated officials scrambled to clean up their act (or their image) with ambitious and expensive renovations. The most recent were completed in 2019 but their focus has been on security: modernized cell door systems, 4G signal jamming, and so on.
In other words, getting out may be tricky. But historical escapes give us hope.
The first to break out of La Santé, in 1977, was the “French Robin Hood” Jacques Mesrine. He’d already escaped two prisons in Canada, and even a courtroom in France by using the judge as a human shield. Now facing 20 years at La Santé, he and two others used a gun to steal keys and a grappling hook to climb over the wall… which clearly leaves many questions unanswered but the details are still covered up. In any case, although one of the men was killed by police, Mesrine got away with the other. And, true to form, he picked up from where he left off: robbing banks, ransoming the rich, giving to the homeless, and generally sabotaging the state.
Eight years later, Parisian gangster Michel Vaujour was plucked from the yard in a helicopter flown by his wife. Like Mesrine’s, his bold and romantic escape captured the hearts of the public. However, some time later — also like Mesrine — he was tracked down and murdered by police, Mafia-style, in a vengeful hail of bullets on the street.
4. Penal Colony No. 6 (aka Black Dolphin)
Though nicknamed for its striking black dolphin statue — frozen mid-leap for eternity — the prison itself is much older. In fact, it predates even the Cossack rebellion against the Russian Empire (1773-75), in which it was used to hold captives. But it wasn’t until 2000 that it was upgraded to maximum security. Among its current inmates are serial killers, political prisoners, and the cannibal Vladimir Nikolayev — all held in “cells within cells”, i.e. steel-bar enclosures preventing contact with the cell doors and windows. No cell in the prison is on the ground floor, so there’s no chance of tunneling out. And inmates are under 24-hour video surveillance, for which the cell lights are always kept on.
Whenever inmates come out of their cells (e.g. for exercise in another cell), they’re escorted hunched over so they can’t map the layout of the building. Meanwhile, the guards do the rounds every 15 minutes and, to eliminate any possibility of sympathy, each cell door lists its occupant’s crimes.
The only way to escape, they say, is by dying. Or so they thought…
While authorities have been cagey on the details, at least one man apparently got out. In 2016, Aleksandr Aleksandrov was said to have escaped after leaving his post at a factory. Aside from there being no news of his capture, that’s about all we know.
3. North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI)
NBCI has a haunting designation: high-tech maximum-security, or ‘hyper-max’. Presumably based on Bentham’s panopticon (designed to minimize guards and maximize compliance), Maryland’s ‘inverted fortress’ prison centers on a master control tower. From here, it takes only two officers to operate the entire facility — everything from doors and gates to cameras and power, even water flow to individual cells.
The cells themselves are built of concrete and coated with high-grade epoxy, so there aren’t any seams to hide contraband. The beds, sinks, and toilets are secured to the floor, their bolts rounded off, and the plumbing is heavily reinforced.
Even if you do somehow get to the grounds, you’ll never get past the perimeter: fifteen miles of inwardly-curved razor wire with motion detectors, patrol guards, and dogs.
While there’s never been a successful escape, there’s an obvious weakness to exploit: human error. Indeed, attacks on staff are often blamed on the still-human guards’ fallibility. Also, unlike many of the world’s most secure prisons, it doesn’t have a courtroom on site. This is a gaping flaw; off-site trials and hospital visits are always a chance to break free. In fact, one inmate now at NBCI has a history of doing just that. Hospitalized from another prison with self-inflicted injuries, he swiped a gun from his guard, took someone hostage, and carjacked a taxi outside.
2. Centro Federal de Readaptación Social Número 1 (aka Altiplano)
Altiplano near Mexico City is almost entirely perimeter. Of its 26 hectares the prison itself covers only 2.8; the remaining expanse is all armed guards and checkpoints, watched over by towers and battle tanks. Even beyond the perimeter there’s nothing for miles around — not even cell phone signal.
Still, the prison at the center is a fortress on its own: three-meter-thick walls, explosives detectors, and hidden microphones everywhere, plus motion sensors and cameras. It therefore came as a shock when Altiplano’s prize inmate, the kingpin El Chapo, quietly slipped out of the complex.
This was actually his second escape. His first, from a different jail, involved bribes and a laundry cart exit. That was in 2001. When he was finally recaptured in 2014 officials vowed never again. But they must have forgotten his special contribution to the Mexico-US drug trade: Tunnels.
In 2015, amid constant noise from works on the plumbing, his men dug a route to his cell. They’d already smuggled in a GPS wrist watch to pinpoint the base of his shower. This was apparently a blind spot for the cameras (having bribed certain staff to make sure) and he dug out the last part himself.
On July 11, after his meds, he climbed through the hole and down a long ladder. 33 feet below his cell, a motorbike on rails sped him 1.5 kilometers to a construction site he’d paid for nearby. There, he was bundled onto an ATV, driven to a warehouse, and flown to his palace in the mountains.
He gleefully mocked officials on Twitter but was caught in less than a year and, finally, extradited to the United States. Not least to keep him from naming names (given both governments’ drug war corruption), El Chapo is now being held at…
1. ADX Florence (aka the Alcatraz of the Rockies)
The most secure prison in the world today is undoubtedly ADX Florence. “Literally built into the side of a mountain,” this is the end of the line. Security features include 1,400 remote-controlled doors, motion detectors, pressure pads, hidden cameras, and a perimeter with razor wire and guard dogs — as well as laser beams.
The entire prison population, which includes spies, whistleblowers, and other high-profile rebels, is in near-total solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
The cells are soundproof and depressing: poured-concrete walls, beds, stools, and a stainless steel toilet/sink unit. Like at Black Dolphin, there are bars separating inmates from the doors. The windows, meanwhile, are just slits angled upwards to block out all views but the sky. In each cell, there’s also a small black-and-white TV screen playing closed-circuit church services and anger management programs. Strangely, in a response to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the US government made a thing of these screens, suggesting they were some kind of privilege.
Another so-called privilege is exercise time in the yard, which takes place both caged and alone. This can be revoked for months at a time for violating draconian rules — anything from attempting suicide to scattering crumbs for the birds. Repeat offenders are taken to Range 13, the most isolated part of the prison, and sometimes left there for years.
If there’s a way to escape from ADX Florence, nobody’s found it yet. But where there’s a will, there’s a way — even here. Despite the lengths this prison has gone to to stop inmates talking to each other, they sometimes communicate through the drains. One former inmate explained how: You place a whole roll of toilet paper on the sink or shower plughole and blow hard to clear water from the pipes; if you’re in the right cell and the pipes are aligned, you may have made a phone to your neighbour. This, coupled with the guards’ low intelligence (and many of the inmates’ high intelligence, e.g. Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber), could be the makings of a plan. Being white might help too. The mostly caucasian, apparently racist guards are said to be lenient to their “brothers” — even, allegedly, to the point of bringing them contraband.