Worst Prisons in the State of Pennsylvania - Prison Inside (2024)

Pennsylvania has 26 state prisons, which house over 44,000 inmates. While some of these facilities are modern with progressive rehabilitation programs, others are antiquated with poor conditions and inadequate resources. When evaluating the worst prisons in Pennsylvania, factors like inmate abuse, staffing shortages, poor healthcare, and high levels of violence are considered.

Several institutions stand out as the most problematic. SCI Pittsburgh, SCI Graterford, SCI Fayette, and SCI Camp Hill frequently top the list for worst prisons based on metrics of safety, inmate treatment, and access to programs. A lack of funding, aging infrastructure, overcrowding, and staff burnout contribute to the failing conditions at these facilities. Learning more about what makes these prisons so troubled can help spur much-needed reforms.

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A Brief History of the Pennsylvania Prison System

Before identifying the worst prisons today, it helps to understand some of the history of Pennsylvania’s prisons. Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829, ushered in modern incarceration based on the separate system of isolating prisoners. By 1913, Pennsylvania had established its first Board of Trustees of State Institutions and took over complete control of prisons.

In the early 1900s, prison populations exploded, leading to extreme overcrowding and worsening conditions. More state prisons opened over the next decades to keep pace with growing numbers of inmates. However, many of these prisons ended up being outdated and subpar. Private prisons also emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to address the overflow but brought problems like violence and abuse.

Major changes came to the Pennsylvania prison system in 1984. That year, the state signed a settlement establishing minimum standards for facilities. Despite this agreement, many state prisons continued to be at the center of lawsuits and scandals related to healthcare, sexual abuse, mental illness treatment, and use of solitary confinement. Fixing these broken aspects of prisons continues to be an uphill battle.

SCI Pittsburgh

SCI Pittsburgh, located in Allegheny County, is one of the oldest prisons in Pennsylvania. Initial structures were built in 1882, and more cellblocks were added through the early 1900s. Today, this aging prison houses over 2,200 medium and maximum security inmates.

Overcrowding and Violence

The antiquated facility faces severe overcrowding, with many cells holding twice as many prisoners as they were designed for. Violence is common, including fights and sexual assaults. Weak inmate classification and supervision allow hostile situations to unfold among the crowded population. Gangs also proliferate due to inadequate respect for prisoners’ safety.

Failing Infrastructure

Outdated building systems, like poor ventilation, take a toll on health and safety as well. Plumbing and electrical issues result in sewage backups and power failures. Leaking roofs and broken windows lead to mold and freezing temperatures indoors during winter. Such dilapidated conditions degrade the quality of life for those incarcerated.

Inmate Abuse

Another systemic issue is the rampant physical abuse and maltreatment of prisoners by staff. Excessive use of force, corruption, and denial of services are chronic problems. Oversight measures to protect human rights struggle to gain any traction at this prison.

See also Worst Prisons in the United States

Lack of Rehabilitation

Lastly, SCI Pittsburgh does not have adequate programming and services to support rehabilitation, education, mental health, and productive use of inmates’ time. Idleness and lack of purpose fuel tensions. Without proper re-entry preparation, releasing individuals into the community sets them up for failure rather than success.

SCI Graterford

SCI Graterford first opened its doors in 1929 and came to be one of the largest prisons in Pennsylvania. At its peak population in the 1940s and 50s, it held over 4,000 inmates. While some newer buildings were later constructed, much of the infrastructure remains from the early 20th century.

Violence and Gang Activity

SCI Graterford struggles with riots, assaults, and homicides due to alliances formed by inmates along racial lines or gang affiliations. The prison has been locked down repeatedly due to violent conflicts. Attempts to disrupt gang hierarchy and contraband trafficking have been largely ineffective. These ongoing safety concerns make it a hostile environment.

Inadequate Facilities

In addition to violence issues, SCI Graterford contends with overtaxed and deteriorating infrastructure. The facilities were meant for a much smaller population than the nearly 3,500 prisoners housed there today. As a result, living units, cafeterias, and program spaces are woefully insufficient. The aging buildings also pose risks from crumbling roofs, poor air quality, and fire hazards.

Failing Healthcare System

Medical and mental health services are severely lacking at SCI Graterford. Staffing shortages lead to long waits for care, interrupted medication regimens, poor chronic disease management, and inconsistent mental health therapy. Preventable deaths and suicides have brought attention to these inadequate resources.

Restrictive Housing Overuse

Another area of concern is excessive reliance on solitary confinement and restricted housing units. Isolation for 22-24 hours per day for months or years on end causes lasting psychological damage. Graterford frequently resorts to this punitive segregation approach rather than constructive alternatives to handle troubled inmates.

Lack of Meaningful Activities

Finally, idleness reaches distressing levels at Graterford due to insufficient jobs, vocational programs, education, recreation, and enrichment activities. Unoccupied prisoners contribute to the tensions and aggression. Without pro-social outlets, anti-social behaviors thrive.

SCI Fayette

SCI Fayette is a medium security prison with around 2,300 prisoners. Located in a rural town north of Pittsburgh, it was originally constructed in 2003. However, just a decade later, the facility displayed signs of dangerous deterioration.

Indoor Air Pollution

Within a few years of opening, radioactivity levels became dangerously high inside the prison. Lax construction standards and cheap building materials caused radon gas and fly ash particles to infiltrate living quarters. Exposure to these toxic substances puts inmates and staff at an elevated risk of cancer.

Sewage and Plumbing Issues

Faulty plumbing has also plagued SCI Fayette. Sewage backups release biohazards into the environment. Leaky pipes erode walls and ceilings, while poor drainage results in flooding. These unsanitary conditions create health risks and make repairs extremely costly.

Inadequate Medical Care

Being a newer prison, SCI Fayette was ill-prepared for the scope of medical needs. There are not enough qualified health professionals and supplies available for the population. Prisoners experience significant obstacles getting treatment for serious conditions. Preventable deaths have occurred from failures to diagnose conditions like cancer or provide timely emergency care.

Disability Accessibility Issues

In addition, the facilities lack accommodations for prisoners with disabilities. Uneven floors, narrow doorways, limited handicap-accessible cells, and insufficient assistive devices impede basic functioning for inmates with impairments. SCI Fayette violates accessibility standards, further diminishing quality of life.

Staff Shortages

Creating unsafe conditions, SCI Fayette has had chronic shortfalls in correctional officers and key personnel. Prisoners get shut in cells for prolonged periods and programs grind to a halt when insufficient staff are present. Unchecked flow of contraband is another consequence of limited oversight.

See also Top 7 Worst Prisons in Florida State

SCI Camp Hill

SCI Camp Hill is a maximum security prison with a population around 3,300 inmates. Situated near Pennsylvania’s capital Harrisburg, it was built in the early 1900s. Numerous problems plague the antiquated facility today.

Inhumane Use of Solitary Confinement

SCI Camp Hill frequently places prisoners in solitary confinement for excessive durations and under severe conditions. Inmates sent to restrictive housing units are isolated for 23 hours per day in tiny cells with no access to programming or stimuli. Extended stays in solitary can cause psychological breakdown. Reform advocacy groups condemn SCI Camp Hill’s routine use of this practice.

Aging Infrastructure Hazards

The prison’s aged buildings are falling into dangerous disrepair. Outdated heating and electrical systems are fire hazards. Plumbing leaks, mold, and descending ceilings threaten health. Structural issues like sinking floors, crumbling masonry, and rusting rails make moving around risky. overall deterioration generates an inhospitable environment.

Understaffing Problems

Staffing shortages lead to inadequate supervision, which allows violence and misconduct to increase. Rules violations go unaddressed when overburdened employees cannot keep up with enforcement. Gangs and contraband spread readily due to limited oversight. Hiring additional skilled personnel is essential for safety.

Healthcare Deficiencies

Another weak area is delivery of medical and mental healthcare. Appointments get canceled frequently due to understaffing. Medications run out often, while referrals to specialists take months to complete. Prisoners with chronic physical and psychiatric conditions suffer negative outcomes due to these deficiences. Preventable deaths have occurred here.

Restricted Access to Rehabilitation

Finally, inmates have restricted access to rehabilitative programming at SCI Camp Hill. Classes get canceled frequently and waitlists are endless. Vocational training, counseling services, education, and cognitive therapies are not available to most. Idleness and lack of development oppurtunities hinder successful re-entry.

Major Issues Leading to Problems

Looking across the main factors making these prisons the worst in Pennsylvania, a few broad issues stand out.

Most of these prisons are operating over capacity without adequate space, staff, or resources to humanely accommodate such large populations. Cramped and crowded conditions breed unrest and dysfunction.

Limited budgets prevent hiring enough competent employees or maintaining safe buildings. Salary shortages lead to high turnover. Deferred maintenance lets infrastructure crumble. Financial constraints negatively impact conditions.

Staff Burnout Constant demands lead to exhausted employees cutting corners on safety, program delivery, and healthcare. Struggling staff react punitively rather than constructively to inmates. More support and smaller caseloads could improve professional conduct.

Leadership Failures Administrators allow problems to fester unaddressed. They fail to advocate for more resources or overhaul dysfunctional systems. Vision and innovation are lacking around rehabilitation and humane treatment of prisoners.

Outdated Design Antiquated architecture like tiny cells stacked in tiers makes monitoring difficult. Support spaces for programs and services are insufficient. New construction adhering to modern design principles could improve matters.

Inadequate Oversight Authorities do not enforce standards or hold failing prisons accountable. Violations are not quickly corrected, allowing them to become entrenched. Stronger regulations and quality control processes could identify problems sooner.

Major Incidents at Worst Prisons

These dysfunctional environments contribute to some of the worst incidents that have occurred within the Pennsylvania prison system in recent years:

Date Prison Incident
October 25, 2017 SCI Camp Hill 200 inmates protest poor living conditions
August 8, 2018 SCI Graterford 5 corrections officers injured quelling riot
February 11, 2019 SCI Fayette Prisoner dies from asthma after nurse ignores complaints
July 3, 2020 SCI Pittsburgh Class action lawsuit alleging abusive strip searches
See also The Worst Prisons in South Carolina

These dramatic events shed light on the chronic dysfunction within the worst state prisons. While the most egregious incidents make headlines, lower-level problems persist every day in these institutions.

What causes Pennsylvania’s prisons to be so troubled?

The root causes include overcrowding, aging facilities, understaffing, lack of programming, leadership failures, inadequate funding, burnout, and insufficient oversight. Most state prisons share these systemic shortcomings to varying degrees.

Does Pennsylvania spend less on prisons than other states?

Yes, Pennsylvania’s annual spending per inmate is below the national average. The $42,727 per inmate here compares poorly to New York’s $69,355 and California’s $64,642 per inmate annually. Lower funding prevents adequate staff, facilities, and programs.

Are private prisons any better or worse?

Pennsylvania’s private prisons have comparably poor conditions and records of violence. Private facilities often minimize costs and have similar understaffing, burnout, and oversight issues. For-profit motives do not reliably improve outcomes for incarcerated populations’ welfare.

What are public officials doing to try to fix these failing prisons?

There have been some efforts to close dilapidated prisons like SCI Graterford or reduce solitary confinement. But systemwide reforms have lacked the massive investment needed for repairs and added staff. Most proposed changes fail to pass votes.

What are prisoner advocacy groups doing to try to help?

Advocacy groups monitor conditions and file lawsuits seeking to correct specific abuses. They lobby legislators for increased funding and oversight. They also organize protests, raise public awareness, and demand officials make dramatic improvements a priority.

Paths Forward for Prison Reform

How can Pennsylvania begin to overhaul its penal system and improve its worst prisons? Stakeholders highlight several approaches.

Sentencing Reform
Reducing inmate populations through sentencing reform for non-violent crimes can alleviate dangerous overcrowding and free up resources. Alternative punishments to incarceration should also expand.

Infrastructure Investments
Major capital is required to repair, upgrade, and replace obsolete prison buildings and technology systems to meet modern standards. This includes creating updated design layouts.

Increased Oversight Strengthening accountability through more rigorous inspections, quality assurance programs, and performance audits can pressure prisons to improve and identify problems sooner.

Independent Monitoring Empowering independent citizen review boards and ombudsmen to monitor prison conditions and respond to complaints can also enhance protections for those incarcerated.

Staff Support Better compensation, increased hiring, ongoing training, mental health resources, and career development can reduce employee burnout and improve professional conduct.

Programming Expansion Adding robust rehabilitative programming lowers recidivism rates post-release. Educational services, job training, counseling, cognitive therapies, and enrichment activities should be increased.

Culture Change Most critically, leadership must champion an organizational culture valuing humanity, rehabilitation, and safely returning productive citizens to the community. Standards of decency must not be compromised.


Several of Pennsylvania’s state prisons face severe challenges around aging infrastructure, violence, healthcare, staffing, rehabilitation services, and oversight. Without dramatic changes, prisons like SCI Pittsburgh, Graterford, Fayette, and Camp Hill will continue to provide substandard and dangerous conditions for those incarcerated, employees, and surrounding communities.

By reducing overcrowding, modernizing outdated buildings, hiring more staff, expanding programming, implementing rigorous accountability, and promoting organizational cultural change, Pennsylvania can significantly improve outcomes at even its most troubled prisons. Investing in substantial reforms will help the state transition from an outdated corrections system to an international model upholding human rights and rehabilitation as paramount priorities.

Related posts:

  1. The Worst Prisons in the State of California
  2. Worst Prisons in Texas
  3. Top 7 Worst Prisons in Florida State
Worst Prisons in the State of Pennsylvania - Prison Inside (2024)


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