Alcatraz is reputed to have housed some of the most dangerous prisoners of the 20th century, including mobster Al Capone and gangster Alvin Karpowicz; referred to as ‘the prison system’s prison,’ Alcatraz received the most difficult inmates. Built on an island off the coast of San Francisco, ‘The Rock,’ as it was nicknamed, made for a challenging escape, although over a dozen attempts were made – none of which were successful. Alcatraz was originally built in the 1850s as a U.S. military fortress and housed military prisoners until 1933, when it was renovated as a maximum-security prison. Alcatraz could hold 260–275 prisoners during its time of operation, less than one percent of the entire federal inmate population, but officially closed its doors in 1963 due to its high operating costs.
Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) was part of a controversial movement in the early 1800s that advocated the use of solitary confinement and hard labor to alter the behavior of inmates. Designed in a ‘radial-style’ floor plan, ESP was one of the most costly buildings of its time, with vaulted ceilings, skylights, and 253 cells, each with its own toilet, running water, and heat. The layout and practices at ESP were so popular that they were replicated in over 300 other prisons worldwide; by the early 1930s, however, the prison abandoned the solitary confinement system, replacing it with other severe forms of punishment. Operating from 1829–1971, the prison held some of the nation’s most infamous criminals, including Al Capone (before his time at Alcatraz) and Willie Sutton; today, it’s considered one of the most haunted buildings in the world.
Old Idaho Penitentiary, once known as the Territorial Prison, was constructed in 1872 as a single-cell house; over the years, the prison expanded to include several buildings, as well as a 17-foot-high wall surrounding the complex. Over 101 years, until it closed in 1973, the Old Idaho Penitentiary received over 13,000 inmates, 215 of them women, and housed infamous convicts like Harry Orchard and Lyda ‘Lady Bluebeard’ Southard. The prison, however, was known for having unsuitable living conditions, and many inmates responded to these conditions with riots in 1971 and 1973. After its closing in 1973, the prison was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.