The saying “bad things happen to bad people” is one of the reasons jails and prisons are incredible places to check out if you’re interested in history, exploring or even ghost hunting.
If you want to do any of those things, new prisons aren’t a great place to explore. So where should you go to see 10 incredible abandoned jails in the USA?
We’ve put together a list of 10 jails across the USA. Each one has its own unique history and reasons for making the trip. There were some short-lived jails that had to close for safety reasons or jails known for being the bloodiest in the country.
Check out our complete beginner’s guide to learn more about urban exploration!
1. Eastern State Penitentiary: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Eastern State Penitentiary operated for 142 years from 1829 to 1971. When it was built, it was the biggest, and most expensive building ever built.
Until 1913, all prisoners were kept in complete isolation. If they had to be transported out of their cell, guards would cover the prisoner’s heads so they couldn’t see any other inmates.
From 1929 until 1930, the infamous gangster Al Capone had a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. His room must not have been all that bad because a reporter described it as a luxurious lockup. Even Capone described his cell as “very comfortable” with his radio, rugs, and polished wood furniture.
In 1945, 12 men escaped the prison through a tunnel. Most of them were caught quickly, but one escapee was out for 2 hours. He only had two years left on his sentence before his escape, but his stunt gave him an additional ten years.
After the escape, the Pennsylvania Legislature started talking about abandoning the prison.
In 1961 an inmate tricked a guard into opening the cell of another prisoner. Once opened, the prisoner overtook the guard and opened more cells. This caused the biggest riot the prison had ever seen and added a great argument as to why the prison should be shut down.
In 1970 the prison closed and all the remaining inmates were sent to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. The building sat completely abandoned for ten years but was purchased and turned into a museum.
You can book daytime tours or evening tours to check out this old prison.
2. Ohio State Reformatory: Mansfield, Ohio
If you go visit Ohio State Reformatory, you might recognize it. Why? Parts of Shawshank Redemption were filmed here.
Ohio State Reformatory was built in 1886 and closed 94 years later in 1990. When it was built, it was the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world, and it still holds that title.
This prisoned closed in 1990 when the federal court deeming the conditions “brutalizing and inhumane”. In 1943 two parolees kidnapped and killed a guard’s wife and daughter.
One inmate even killed their cellmate and then stuffed the body under their bed.
Several years later in 1950, the warden’s family was getting ready for church. The wife reached into the closet to grab her jewelry box and pushed a steel box to the side.
The box fell to the floor, and the loaded gun in that box was set off and shot the warden’s wife. She died in the hospital after three days. Overcome by grief, the warden died of a heart attack in his office a few years later.
The prison never reopened for prisoners, but visitors can go on tours that focus on showing locations from Shawshank Redemption. It’s been said that you can hear screams at night, or even the warden and his wife having conversations in his office.
3. West Virginia State Penitentiary: Moundsville, West Virginia
This prison was built in 1876 and closed in 1995. At least 94 men were executed here; 85 were hung, and 9 were executed by the electric chair.
The chair was built by inmate Paul Glenn, and the prisoners called the chair “Old Sparky”. The last hanging occurred in 1949, and the chair was used until West Virginia became the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty in 1959.
West Virginia State Penitentiary was one of the harshest correctional facilities. The guards crammed inmates into tiny cells that were only 5ft by 7ft, and would even sometimes put three people in a cell.
The prison was closed in 1995 after the court ruled that the living conditions were inhumane. There were two riots and a breakout leading up to the closure that helped the court come to the decision.
In March of 1973, several guards had taken maximum security prisoners out of their cells to shower. One of the inmates jumped a guard, took his keys, and the prisoners were in control.
This turned into a huge ordeal where almost 40 prisoners held five guards hostage and told negotiators that if gas or guns were to be used on the prisoners, the guards would be killed.
Between 1960 and 1995 there were five-hundred and ten successful attempts at escaping. 510! One inmate had the nerve to escape and send “wish you were here” postcards to other inmates. Fast Freddie holds the records for most escape attempts with a whopping thirteen attempts.
West Virginia State Penitentiary is now a historic site that has tours during the day, and tours at night.
4. Wyoming Frontier Prison: Rawlins, Wyoming
Wyoming Frontier Prison‘s construction began in 1888, but it sat vacant until 1901. Once it opened, it had seen over 13,000 inmates over the 80 years the prison was open.
The first inmates were in for a rough ride. There was no running water, no electricity, and not enough heat to keep everyone warm during the colder weather.
Your time at Wyoming Frontier Prison wasn’t great if you were one of the 250 inmates who died during your sentence. Only 14 of these deaths were execution, the rest were inmates who took their own lives, victims of violence, or just natural causes.
Instead of paying for a public execution, James Julian, a local architect, was commissioned to make a smaller, easier-to-use version of the traditional gallows.
The trap door would be triggered by a bucket full of water, eliminating the need for an executioner. Nine men were killed this way, and five were executed in a gas chamber.
Wyoming Frontier Prison had different forms of punishment too. The prison was equipped with its own dungeon where a “punishment pole” was kept. Inmates would be handcuffed to the pole and whipped with rubber hoses.
It wasn’t all bad in the prison. The prison ran a small factory throughout its operating years. From 1901 until 1917 they ran a broom factory. It was unfortunately collateral damage during a riot, and the factory burned down, but the factory was rebuilt and started making shirts.
The sale of the shirts was twice as profitable as the brooms were, but a law was passed in 1934 that prohibited transporting and selling prison-made goods across state lines.
In 1935 they began making blankets for the military during World War II and even earned the Navy E award, which was given to companies who produced excellent quality goods for the military.
A new prison was built in Rawlins because the Wyoming Frontier Prison was no longer big enough to contain the inmates and overcrowding was a huge issue.
When the prison had been emptied of inmates, it sat empty for a few years before a low-budget film was shot at the abandoned site. Shortly after the prison was purchased and turned into a museum where you can book tours.
5. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary: San Francisco, California
No, not Azkaban, although they are slightly similar. Azkaban- I mean Alcatraz is a prison on an island, and there was only one successful attempt at a breakout.
Alcatraz’s history goes way back to 1775 when a Spanish explorer discovered the island and named it La Isla de Los Alcatraces (The Island of the Pelicans).
In 1850 The president ordered the island be occupied for military use, and military prisoners were kept on the island with no fear of prisoners escaping due to the rough waters and poor swimming conditions.
The inmates were used to build a prison on the island, and by 1912 they had built the world’s largest reinforced concrete building. This is the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was operated as a federal prison between 1934 and 1963, where Azkaba- Alcatraz would only imprison the most dangerous criminals.
Inmates would live in very sparse conditions, with very little privileges until they could learn how to follow the rules back in mainland prisons.
Alcatraz would only house 260 to 275 inmates at a time. That was only 1% of the entire federal inmate population. The prison also hired one guard for every three inmates to keep the security high.
Despite the high security, there were 14 escape attempts. Only one attempt was successful, and Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin escaped in 1962.
Shortly after this escape, the prison closed down. It wasn’t the fault of security, but the prison was becoming too expensive to keep operating.
In 1973 it reopened as a national park and is open to the public. You can book a tour of the prison and see the living conditions of the “worst criminals”.
6. Old Idaho State Penitentiary: Boise, Idaho
Old Idaho State Penitentiary was built before Idaho officially became a state! The prison was built in 1872, operated for 101 years, and kept over 13,000 inmates.
The prison started as one single jailhouse that could hold about 11 inmates. These inmates slowly started mining sandstone in local quarries and using it to build the rest of the prison. This makes Old Idaho State Penitentiary unique, as it was almost entirely built by inmates.
This prison is a great place to visit if you’re looking to experience paranormal activity. Numerous deaths occurred here by violent outbreaks, suicide, and by poorly-executed execution that many visitors say they can hear and feel spirits in all areas of the prison.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary shut down in 1973 after inmates held a riot to protest their living conditions. It is now open as a historical building where you can tour exhibits and inmate craftwork throughout the 30 buildings.
7. Fort Delaware: Delaware City, Delaware
Fort Delaware was originally built in 1859 to be used as a fortress for the civil war. It very quickly became a prison where confederate soldiers were held. At any given time, the prison could hold as many as 13,000 prisoners.
With a huge influx of prisoners, food became scarce, and inmates had to resort to boiling small pieces of bread to make soup, and eating rats just to survive. An estimated 3,000 captured soldiers died in the prison from the harsh living conditions.
It’s said that Fort Delaware is one of the most haunted places in the world, and the soldiers who died on the small island have stayed around to remind everyone of their struggles.
In 1944 the prison sat abandoned and became a state park in 1951. You can now take a ferry to the prison and go on a ghost tour.
8. Pottawattamie County Jail: Council Bluffs, Iowa
Pottawattamie County Jail is unlike any other on this list. This jail was built in 1885 and was built with three floors of revolving cells. This style of jail is called the “squirrel cage jail”.
Designed in 1881 by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, the revolving cells were designed to minimize the amount of contact between prisoners and guards.
A guard would rotate the cells using a hand crank and they could release a prisoner from their pie-shaped cell by lining the door of their cell up with the entrance of a hallway.
Imagine a pie sitting on a lazy susan. Each slice of the pie is a prisoner’s cell, and the hand crank would turn all of the cells just like a pie spinning on the lazy susan.
What makes this prison even more interesting is it is only one of 18 squirrel cage jails, and it is the only one to be 3 floors tall.
The jail was shut down in 1969, unsurprisingly for safety concerns. Unfortunately, the rotating cell block isn’t functional anymore, but you can book tours here to see the unique style, and see the signatures of past inmates carved into the walls.
9. Missouri State Penitentiary: Jefferson City, Missouri
Missouri State Penitentiary was the longest continuously running prison in the western USA. It was opened in 1836 and didn’t close until 2004.
During its running years, a bill was passed in 1937 that allowed inmates facing capital punishment to be executed by lethal gas. There were 40 men and women who were executed this way once it was legal.
If you’ve heard of Missouri State Penitentiary, you may have heard it called the bloodiest 47 acres in America. This is because there were hundreds of cases of inmates handcrafting weapons.
Weapons in the hands of unpredictable, violent inmates who have nothing else to lose leads to a very bloody 47 acres.
On September 22, 1954, there was a riot at the prison. Two inmates pretended to be sick to leave their cells. They overtook the guards and released 2,500 prisoners.
It took 245 state troopers to contain the riot, and not a single prisoner was able to escape. It did, however, result in $5 million in damages, the death of four inmates, and the injury of four officers and fifty inmates.
Another interesting note on Missouri State Penitentiary is their infamous inmates. Among them was James Earl Ray. He was sentenced to 99 years of imprisonment after pleading guilty to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. John B.
‘Firebug’ Johnson also served time at this prison. Several inmates died in a fire that he set, earning him the nickname ‘Firebug’.
Missouri State Penitentiary is now a landmark where visitors can see the cell block that dates back to the Civil War, the yards, the tiny cells, and even the gas chamber.
10. Yuma Territorial Prison: Yuma, Arizona
Yuma Territorial Prison has an interesting history. It started as a prison, then became a high school, provided shelter for the homeless during the Great Depression, and then was used for building materials for the locals.
Going back to the beginning, seven inmates moved into cells that they had built themselves in July of 1876. A short 33 years later, the prison closed in 1909 due to overcrowding. All remaining inmates were transferred to the newly built Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona.
During its short operating years, Yuma was viewed as an outstanding example of how a prison should run. By today’s standards, the punishments were harsh, but at the time they were fair.
Inmates who broke the rules would be sent to a solitary cell where they would be chained to the floor in a dark room.
Inmates who were unsuccessful in escape attempts had a ball and chain tethered to their ankle so they couldn’t try anymore.
There were a few inmates who died from being shot during escape attempts, but most of the deaths at this prison were from tuberculosis and heat stroke.
After the prison shut down, the building became a high school for four years from 1910 until 1914, and although it was no longer a prison, they did their best to remind everyone that it used to be one.
The high school adopted the nickname “criminals” for their sports team, and they even called the student merchandise store the cell block.
When the school had cleared out, the building was used for homeless travellers who were taking the train across the country. It then became home to those who lost everything during the Great Depression.
There’s not much left of the prison after it was salvaged for building materials, fires, and weather took down everything except the cells, the main gate, and the guard tower. You can still book a day tour to see a glimpse of Yuma Territorial Prison’s past.
So, do you want to go to all of them? Yeah, me too. The great news is you can visit each and every one of these old abandoned jails. Make sure to charge the batteries on all your equipment, and enjoy every moment of the adventures you’re about to take!