Around the world there are many abandoned prisons, once cages for people – some criminals, some political prisoners. Many disused prisons have been left to rot and decay, while a few have been demolished. No longer places for the incarcerated, many of these derelict landscapes are now the realms of urban explorers who document the abandonment and degradation of the former correctional institutions in pictures.
Image: Dave Scaglione
These weren’t just places that incarcerated people, either; men were killed there as well, whether by hanging or the electric chair – not to mention in outbreaks of violence. Many prisons, of course, housed a death row where prisoners lived until the state chose to end their lives.
The crumbling walls of these buildings are steeped in history. Political leaders who had fallen out of favor, famous killers and bank robbers all once inhabited the cells you see here. So join us as we explore some of the creepiest decrepit and abandoned prisons – from penitentiaries in the United States to jails in Cape Town, South Africa and islands off Italy.
12. Atlanta Prison Farm, Georgia
This prison farm in Atlanta was opened in 1945 for those poor souls who were arrested and served time for ordinance and traffic offences. Rather than being given a ticket for their misdemeanors as is the norm today, inmates were placed in a cell and assigned to work details in farming, livestock and dairy operations. The idea was to give the prisoners vocational training while they contributed to the cost of their stay.
Image: Chad W
There was a change in policy to house more serious offenders here, but in the end the prison was considered too inefficient and was closed in 1995, allowing nature to take over – reclaiming the materials that were once taken from her.
The prison farm went to wrack and ruin for a decade; then, in October of 2009, it caught fire, with the fire fighters deciding that it was safer to just let it burn itself out rather than risk injury fighting the flames. A burned-out shell and photographs from urban explorers are all that remain of the institution today.
11. Essex County Jail, New Jersey
Abandoned in 1970 when a new jail was built, this prison was also known as the Old Newark Jail and is to be found in New Jersey. It is listed on the national register of heritage places, but despite this, nothing has been done to preserve the site and it has gone to ruin.
The grip of decay runs deep in the building, and the squatters who use it as a place to take drugs aren’t helping its condition, according to Forbidden Places. In 2001, a fire broke out, collapsing some walls and making the structure unstable and unsafe.
Desiccated dogs and the signs of homeless people who live here are all that is left now. In 2010, plans to demolish the Old Newark Jail were rejected by a planning committee, which wants the place restored.
10. Carcel de Carabanchel, Spain
The infamous Carcel de Carabanchel in Madrid, Spain was famous for its size – this panopticon-style prison was one of the largest in Europe – and for the political prisoners who were incarcerated here. It was even built using the slave labour of its detainees, between 1940 and 1944.
While General Francisco Franco was alive and reigned in Spain, many of the state’s enemies were political – leftist, democratic and communist figures – but after Franco’s regime had ended in 1975, more regular criminals and others such as Basque separatists were locked up there instead.
Carcel de Carabanchel was closed in 1998. Ten years later there was a great debate over what use it should be put to, and it was decided that the prison would be demolished to make way for a hospital, apartments and government buildings on the grounds.
Some of these images were taken just before Carabanchel was razed in 2008. Graffiti lined the walls. In its dying days it was the domain of urban explorers who came here by choice.
Image: Matt Barnes
9. Tennessee State Prison
Tennessee State Prison was built using convict labor in the years leading up to 1898 when it was opened. A fortress-like building, it contained 800 tiny inmate cells – though there were also various outbuildings within the walls and a farm outside.
The day the prison opened, however, instead of 800 prisoners, 1,403 were admitted. Continuing as it started, the prison was rarely free of overcrowding. This caused numerous problems among the inmates, who were also expected to pay for their stay by working 16-hour days.
The problems faced by the facility ranged from mass escapes – when fires raged and explosions resounded – to the prisoners taking over the segregated white wing of the prison. In 1983, a case was filed with the Federal Court, and in 1992 Tennessee was barred from ever housing prisoners again. It has since been used as a location in movies such as The Green Mile.
8. HM Pentridge Prison, Australia
Australia’s Pentridge Prison was also known as “The Bluestone College”, and the inmates were forced to break much of the surrounding blue stone – and no doubt their backs – to build a road from Melbourne to Sydney. Built in 1850, the prison was modernized around 1870 so that it could hold 100 guards and 650 prisoners.
The prison finally ended up with 1,000 inmates before a number of riots and scandals led to its eventual closing in 1997.
As you can see from the scrawls on the cell doors, there were many unhappy men confined here, yet now only the ghosts of the executed run the halls. A large part of the prison is being demolished to make way for housing, and graves have been dug up – with the remains of criminals returned to their families or waiting in a morgue for identification. The resting place of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly also lies inside.
7. Isle of Procida Jail, Italy
This dead bird exemplifies the sense of rot and ruin that permeates the historic jail on the Isle of Procida, Italy. Built in 1563 as a castle, in 1815 the site was enlarged by King Ferdinand II (king of the Two Sicilies) and transformed into a prison.
It operated as a prison after Piedmont annexed the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and continued to be run so until 1988. As you can see, the cells have been left much as they were at the time of the prison’s closure, although decay has certainly left its mark on this abandoned place.
6. Eastern State Penitentiary, Pennsylvania
Most of the prisons on this list are either completely abandoned or have been demolished by now; Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is an exception. There are tours here and it is open as a museum. Make no mistake, though, the decay and feeling of abandonment still pervades this place, which once held such notable figures as Al Capone.
Notions of reform and Christian faith were built into the design and theme of the prison: cell doors were small, forcing prisoners to bow to enter, and there was only a single skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, in each cell.
Solitary confinement was key to this prison’s model when it was opened in 1829. However, in 1913 overcrowding finally made the state officially abandon its policy of isolation, and it was subsequently run as a congregate prison. This meant prisoners could have more contact with one other – until the prison officially closed in 1971.
Quite apart from the idea that isolation and silence would make prisoners repent and reform, some truly horrific abuses were heaped upon them. According to Wikipedia, these included: “Dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting them into a pit called ‘The Hole’ dug under cell block 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.”
5. William Porter Reformatory, South Africa
The William Porter Reformatory was built in 1892 in Tokai, South Africa, and as you can see from the images, it is decaying and abandoned, not to mention creepy. The maximum age of the prisoners detained here was 16 years old, with some of the children placed into isolation cells.
According to a Heritage Significance and Vulnerability document, the institution “played a role in the social engineering of the ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ working class community at the Cape, and in the institutionalization of predominant political attitudes toward race, class and the 20th century.” Whatever its social history, however, today an overriding sense of abandonment and decrepitude is what fills those who choose to visit today.
4. Fort Ord Stockade, California
The abandoned and decaying military confinement facility at Fort Ord, a prison in Monterey, California, is where the so-called Fort Ord 14 group of inmates carried out a protest about living conditions and unfair treatment. In 1968, they escaped hard labor and mutiny charges after a peaceful demonstration.
The cells are extremely narrow. As you can see, there was scarcely room for a full-grown man to live in them. Now gravel pours into the rooms because of a sand company that operates just outside the stockade. The walls may contain the memories of the men who were detained within them – many of them Vietnam War deserters and conscientious objectors – but nothing else is left.
Image: Janez Stucin
3. Goli Otok Prison, Croatia
Goli Otok translates as “Barren Island” in Italian. Part of the former Yugoslavia, in 1949 the uninhabited island was turned into a top secret prison that was used until 1956 to detain political prisoners under extremely tough conditions. The inmates were forced to do hard labor outdoors, whatever the weather conditions – in temperatures ranging from searing hot in the summer to freezing cold in winter.
Imagine an inmate sitting in his cell with little else to keep him company but a red marker as he marks off each day that passes.
The island is totally abandoned now: only shepherds live here in place of those who once resided within the prison walls. An estimated 4,000 were killed by other inmates or guards, or were otherwise executed.
2. Ohio State Penitentiary
This crumbling, echoing prison was open from 1834 to 1983 in Columbus, Ohio. One of the most notable events in the history of the prison was a fire 1930 in which 322 inmates were killed and 150 badly injured.
Guards and the military were called in with orders to shoot to kill if anyone tried to escape – which likely led to many more deaths than there might have been. In 1983, the prison, which once held over 5,000 men, was abandoned to urban explorers and left to decay – until 1998 when it was finally demolished.
1. Tuchthuis Prison, Belgium
Built in 1779, this prison was once the biggest institution of its kind in Belgium (the town it is in, Vilvoorde , lies near Brussels). Used as a prison, a hospital and a military school during its lifetime, in the Second World War it was occupied by the German forces. Graffiti and swastikas were scrawled on the walls, and family letters were to be found inside the cells.
In the 1950s, the authorities sealed all the cells up and the place was later abandoned in the mid-70s, but since then plans have been put in action to restore the building and the cells have now been unsealed.
This look at prisons that have been abandoned or neglected is a reminder of how places that were once proud institutions of the state can fall from grace. Nature has taken its course, taking back those abandoned prisons that have not been otherwise preserved – or demolished. Some might say: build new but let the old just decay by itself.