Up until around the early-through-mid 1800's (of the real world, for clarification), the rights of criminals, disabled people, and the poor were commonly ignored. As a result, the justice system was swayed heavily against these groups of people, and the prisons were beyond inhumane, with their residents being treated as far less than animals.
I am writing a fantasy story that is meant to capture the sheer savageness of those places in the dark times before the Prison Reform. You can tell just by reading the historical summary it's based on that the place, situation, and overall theme of the book is supposed to be overwhelmingly brutal.
And yet when I actually sit down to write the book, it always comes out soft. I'm not sure if I respect my character's lives too much or what, but the violence is never as bad, the living conditions are never as terrible, and the whole sense of the book is never as vicious as I want it to be or plan it to be.
It's not that I don't try to make it feel that way. It just... doesn't.
So my grand, overarching question is pretty much the title: How do I make a place/situation seem brutal, and prevent this theme from (for lack of a better term) being lost in translation?