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Notorious Prison Stories from America's Most Infamous Cellblocks

These seven prisons were home to mobsters, assassins, and the dregs of history alike.

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  • Photo Credit: Dennis Matheson / Flickr (CC)

Some of America’s wildest tales came from behind bars. The prisons that held the famous lawbreakers, gangsters, moonshiners, and murderers, remain as reminders of their crimes. If these walls and cells could talk, they’d have some stories to tell.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, San Francisco, California

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  • Photo Credit: Shaun Versey / Flickr

There's no American prison as well known as Alcatraz or "The Rock." The island in the San Francisco Bay operated from 1934 to 1963, housing a who’s who of the nation’s most violent criminals, including Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, and “Machine Gun” Kelly.

During its tenure, the prison was the site of violence and attempted escapes, including one in 1962 where the three men were never seen again. The prison was decommissioned not long after due to high operational costs but is now a National Park-managed tourist attraction.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Petros, Tennessee

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  • Photo Credit: maupuia / Flickr (CC)

Opened on the site of a former coal mine in 1896, Brushy Mountain is tucked into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Inmates were subject to disease and hunger, leading to many deaths. By the 1960s, prisoners that caused too many problems elsewhere were sent to the maximum-security prison. 

Perhaps their most famous inmate was James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray tried to escape multiple times and at one point was stabbed 22 times by fellow inmates. These days, the prison has a restaurant, moonshine distillery, and, of course, paranormal tours.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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  • Photo Credit: Rob Zand / Flickr

First opened in 1829, this prison transformed the system by essentially putting every inmate in solitary confinement. Cells were small and narrow, with a single skylight. But not all prisoners were treated equally. Al Capone famously had a comfortable room with books, paintings, and even a radio for his seven-month sentence. Bank robber, Willie Sutton was also an inmate here. Eastern ceased operations in 1971 and, in 1994, the crumbling prison opened for tours.

Related: How the Stratton Brothers Became the First British Killers Busted by a Fingerprint

Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Called “Alcatraz of the South,” the prison in Angola is named for a former plantation it inhabits and the country of origin of the slaves that worked there. Over the years, the active prison has been the site of violent inmate attacks, escape attempts, and grisly protests to avoid laboring in the prison's fields. Among the notable inmates are Freddy Fender, a Tejano musician; Ronald J. Dominique, "the Bayou Strangler"; and Frank Lee Morris, who was later a part of the infamous Alcatraz escape. 

The prison hosts the Angola Prison Rodeo, an annual event where inmates serve as cowboys, riding bulls and making crafts for visitors to buy. There’s also a museum detailing the prison’s history with artifacts like makeshift weapons confiscated from inmates and “Gruesome Gertie,” the decommissioned electric chair.

Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, Missouri

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  • Photo Credit: Steve Mays / Flickr

Operating from 1836 to 2004, Missouri State Penitentiary was, at the time of closing, one of the oldest operating penal facilities in the country. When the Gothic-style stone building was complete, Missouri was a newly formed state. Inmates worked to construct additional buildings, making bricks in the onsite quarry. James Earl Ray was imprisoned (and escaped) here as well, along with bank robber "Pretty Boy" Floyd and serial killer Robert Berdella. The prison also held women, including anarchist Emma Goldman and socialist activist Kate Richards O'Hare. It now operates a museum.

United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Kansas prison is so notorious that it only goes by its city name. The most infamous of American criminals have passed through the halls, including spies, gang leaders, and political prisoners. Gangster Whitey Bulger, Robert Stroud (better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), former football player Michael Vick, and serial killer Carl Panzram are among the alumni of Leavenworth. First opened in 1903, the prison is still in operation to this day.

Wyoming Territorial Prison, Laramie, Wyoming

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  • Photo Credit: colddayforpontooning / Flickr (CC)

Built-in 1872, this outpost was used to hold the Wild West's most notorious outlaws. It was the site of overcrowding and escapes in the first 18 years of operation. Butch Cassidy was among the well-known inmates, serving his time here before forming the "Wild Bunch." In 1901, the remaining prisoners were transferred to the Frontier Prison in Rawlins and the building was turned over to the University of Wyoming. It became a museum in 2004.

Related: 8 Times Truth Was Stranger than Fiction in the Wild West

Featured photo: Dennis Matheson / Flickr (CC); Additional photos: Rob Zand / Flickr (CC); Steve Mays / Flickr (CC); Shaun Versey / Flickr (CC); maupuia / Flickr (CC) colddayforpontooning / Flickr (CC)