Prisons are a perennially newsworthy topic, whether the angle is mass incarceration, substandard conditions or the accuracy of pop culture representations like Orange Is the New Black’s Litchfield Correctional Facility. Many of these questions have marinated in the public sphere for decades.
In 1950, when the number of incarcerated Americans was around one-fifth of today’s levels, LIFE published an exposé on a prison south of the border, Mexico City’s Black Palace of Lecumberri. Prison is not designed to be pleasant, but the Black Palace was so dangerous, dirty and degraded as to inspire LIFE to describe it “an animal cage for great and petty criminals who ... murdered each other in knife brawls and lived in depravity in overcrowded cells.”
Following a crime wave in 1949, the prison administration brought in a new warden to oversee the 4,000 inmates, who were living in a facility built for half that number. Colonel Francisco Linares introduced a militaristic management style while maintaining some of the prison’s unusual freedoms: City postmen brought letters directly to cells, wealthier inmates could employ other inmates as servants and conjugal visits were permitted—for male inmates only—with the intention of preventing homosexual activity.
As for the female prisoners, who made up 10% of the population and three dozen of whom were mothers, many found better nutrition and education within the prison’s walls than in their impoverished lives outside of prison.
Linares openly eschewed penal pedagogy, resorting to special measures for what he deemed a special situation. “We can’t run an Alcatraz, a Leavenworth or a Sing Sing here,” he explained. “We have to run this place a la Mexicana.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.