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March 8, 2024

30 Vintage Photographs Capture Life Inside the Black Palace Prison in Mexico, 1950

The Palacio de Lecumberri, also called the Black Palace, was known as a place from which it was impossible to escape. Legend has it that the only person who’d ever successfully done so was Pancho Villa, but after two years at Lecumberri, with the help of his wife, managed to do just that.

Palacio de Lecumberri is located at the North East border of Mexico City’s Federal District. The building was used as a prison from 1900–1976, and as the Country’s National Archive from 1980 onwards.

In 1950, the number of incarcerated Americans was around one-fifth of today’s levels. 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.”

(Photos by Frank Scherschel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)


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