Striped assembly of prisoners wearing regulation uniforms, lines up on the prison athletic field.
Caption from LIFE. Striped assembly of prisoners wearing regulation uniforms, lines up on the prison athletic field.Frank Scherschel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Striped assembly of prisoners wearing regulation uniforms, lines up on the prison athletic field.
Knifer Laureano Garcia is the toughest man in the Black Palace.
Like a huge roulette wheel, circular no. 1 fills corner of prison. Trotsky's assassin is kept in section with barred ceilings (left).
Prisoner parade moves smartly around the prison athletic field to band music. Army-style marching is part of new warden's program to improve morale.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Mass calisthenics use up 4 1/2 hours in the daily routine of most male prisoners. On this same big field they also play softball, volleyball and basketball.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
"Soul of the Prison" is the inmates' friendly nickname for Secretary-General José Farah, who hears their complaints, expedites trials, keeps in touch with families. He is seen above in one of many daily interviews. A lawyer, now 48, Farah began his work in 1938 after serving as a state supreme court judge.
American prisoner Mary Carter, 34, a shoplifter holds fellow inmate's baby as she chats with matron. There are two other Americans in for smuggling.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Prison athletes, led by women, parade around the athletic field. They play intramural games and also meet teams from a Mexico City normal school.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Prisoners relax with small children on a laundry-decked court. Prison stripes are not required and few of the women wear them.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Incorrigible killers peer from solitary cells. The man in cell 19 killed a man in prison.
Incorrigible killers peer from solitary cells. The man in cell 18 has killed two men while in prison.
Incorrigible killers peer from solitary cells. The man in cell 23 killed a man in prison.
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
Visita Conyugal" brings prisoners and wives or recognized mistresses together for two hours one day a week at the Black Palace. Women move on from here to their husband's cells. At right are gifts which wives have brought their husbands. In some of Mexico's other prisons conjugal visits may last all night.
Prisoner's friend Attorney José Menéndez, helps inmates win their freedom. Here he speaks with girl whose release he won after she baby in prison.
Family visit brings wife and two children to this man's cell. On a busy day the prison corridors and patios are filled with scores of scampering youngsters
Inside the Black Palace prison in Mexico, 1950.
A family holds a reunion outside cell.
Caption from LIFE. Striped assembly of prisoners wearing regulation uniforms, lines up on the prison athletic field.
Frank Scherschel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Life Inside Mexico's 'Infamous Cesspool,' the Black Palace Prison

May 13, 2015

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.

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