An essay on the history of the most famous and dreaded prison of all time. Recommended reading for those who think a "get tough" policy on crime is a new idea, or that it works.
As American politicians embrace a continually tougher stance on crime -- demanding longer sentences and tougher conditions, in the belief that such measures will cure the problem of crime, we might want to reflect back on the toughest penal colony of all time, Devil's Island.
The average American convict takes a perverse pride in having served time in a maximum-security prison. To many men it is a rite of passage, just as having served in combat is a rite of passage for others. Yet no American prison has ever been as tough as Devil's Island.
The most infamous prison in history, it was a desolate place of exile in French Guiana (Devil's Island was actually a small island off the coast of French Guiana, but the main prisons on the mainland, over time, became known collectively as "Devil's Island". Just as we have school children (and adults) who have never heard of Hiroshima, there are many more who have never heard of this most dreaded of all prisons.
During its existence as a penal colony (1884-1946), more than 56,000 prisoners were transported to French Guiana from France. Of this number, perhaps one-fourth returned to France. Many of those who evaded death in the jungle camps did so by escape—a feat that became increasingly difficult as the years passed.