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What Are the Most Famous Prisons?

Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
Despite its notoriety, only 22 executions took place at the Tower of London.
The Bastille was a famous prison stormed in the French Revolution.
David Berkowitz, commonly known as Son of Sam, and Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's assassin, have both spent time in Attica Correctional Facility.
San Quentin State Prison, where Johnny Cash performed in 1969.
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2014
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Perhaps one of the most famous prisons today — due to its presence in pop culture, film, and literature — is Alcatraz Island, a prison off the coast of San Francisco, California in the United States. Now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the prison was one of the most feared places for a prisoner to end up serving time, but it is not the only famous prison in the world to strike fear in the hearts of its potential inhabitants. Prisons have been around as long almost as people have, and some have gained notoriety over the centuries, marking them as famous prisons worthy of fear and lore.

One such example is the Tower of London. Known officially as Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, this castle in London is one of the most famous prisons not only for its frightening and often bloody past, but also for its reputation today as the most haunted building in England. However, the Tower of London's reputation as one of the most famous prisons and, more accurately, one of the most terrifying ones, is greatly exaggerated. Most of the prisoners who spent time there were high-profile prisoners whose lives were made much easier than prisoners in other prisons where disease and cruelty were common. In fact, the Tower of London was often used as an abode for the King and Queen, and the grounds were and still are quite beautiful.

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Another of the famous prisons with a reputation far more sinister than reality is the Bastille in Paris, France. Primarily a military fortification, the building was used as a prison after the Hundred Years' War ended. Common and petty criminals were held there, and the facility could only hold about fifty prisoners, making it an unglamorous place to spend a prison term. However, much secrecy revolved around the prison's reputation, causing people to believe the prison was a much more terrifying place.

Some of the most famous prisons have a well-deserved reputation as a sinister place. Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, is a fine example. Built in the 1930s, Attica's inmates are often sent there after causing problems in other correctional facilities. Therefore, some of the most dangerous and troublesome inmates in the United States reside at this prison. David Berkowitz, commonly known as Son of Sam, was guilty of several murders in the 1970s and is among the facility's most famous inmates. Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's assassin, also resides in Attica.

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Discuss this Article

robbie21
Post 5

@golf07 - It really is strange how a castle becomes a prison! It seems to have happened kind of gradually.

For instance, Richard III announced that his late brother's children were illegitimate and that he himself was therefore king rather than the older of the two boys. The boys were sent to the Tower and then never seen or heard from again; they were presumably murdered there. (Most historians think Richard had it done, but a small, vocal contingent argues for Henry VII - after all, if the little boys were alive, Henry's claim that Richard was evil and he himself was the new king would not hold water.)

They're now called the "little princes in the Tower" and often thought of or portrayed as having been imprisoned - but the Tower at that time had not really become a prison. Just a castle, if sometimes one where your stay was not voluntary!

golf07
Post 4

When I was in high school I remember doing a report on the Tower of London. It seems like I remember more about the architecture and location of the building than I do any famous prison inmates that were there.

It was fascinating to me that a place that was originally intended to be a safe place for the Royal family turned out to be known as a place of execution and torture.

It was hard to realize all the bad things that happened in a building that is so majestic and beautiful on the outside.

sunshined
Post 3

I think many people are interested in prison movies because they show a world that is so different than what many people ever experience.

One of my favorite famous prison movies is the Shawshank Redemption. Even though this wasn't filmed at a famous prison, it does a good job of showing the realities of prison life.

I have watched this movie several times and still catch things that I hadn't noticed before. Most of the time it is something about the prison system that I hadn't picked up on before.

sunnySkys
Post 2

@SZapper - I've seen that movie also. It was quite good!

I think it's kind of ironic that all these former prisons now bring their countries so much money in tourism. I personally don't see the appeal and I don't see myself visiting any famous prisons any time soon!

SZapper
Post 1

People do seem to love to hear about famous prisons, especially Alcatraz! I think the most famous Alcatraz movie is probably "The Rock" with Sean Connery.

I believe that movie involves some bad guys taking some tourists hostage in the actual prison. Although no one has ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz in real life, in the movie one of the characters is called in to help because he supposedly escaped from Alcatraz.

The movie was pretty entertaining, and I think it was a good concept. After all, people are still fascinated by Alcatraz, so why not feature it in a movie?

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