Devils Island, a French penal settlement, is located in French Guiana. Devil’s Island became the locale of many (mostly lurid) Hollywood films (Hell on Devil’s Island, I Escaped from Devil’s Island, Women of Devil’s Island, etc.).
The islands are mostly overgrown jungle, slowly covering the remnants of the infamous French penal colony. Devils Island incarcerated 60,000 men, and less than 2,000 survived.
Cayenne’s penal colony, more commonly known as Devil’s Island after the smallest and most notorious of these prison islands, was established in 1852 and operated until 1953.
Devils Island held exiled French political prisoners, mixed with the most hardened thieves and murderers.
Devil’s Island itself, the Île du Diable, was first used as a leper colony and later for political prisoners’ incarceration.
Due to treacherous rocks and strong cross-currents around the Island, safe access was only possible via a cable car which crossed the 60-foot-wide channel between Île du Diable and the main Island, Île Royale.
Ile Royale is where the general prison population was housed and allowed to roam with relative freedom. Prisoners in Solitary confinement were on the southernmost Island, Île Saint-Joseph.
Although escape was always on the prisoners’ minds, it was virtually impossible because of the sharks that circled the Island — waiting for the bodies of prisoners who died in captivity, that were thrown into the ocean. There is a cemetery on the Island, with very few inmates buried there.
The actual prison extended over several locations, but the most isolated was the Île du Diable, and its most famous prisoner was Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
Inmates lived in overcrowded cells, most no larger than a typical bathroom in someone’s home. Isolation in a dark room with no one to talk to for months at a time was the punishment of choice.
Convicts were put into deep, 12 by 12-foot holes with bars on the top and were subject to all types of weather.
Men went mad because of the beatings, both by guards and other prisoners, the solitary confinements, and the lack of food and water.
Convicts were shackled day and night and fell prey to rats, army ants, and vampire bats. Prisoners were forced to harvest wood from underwater and suffered backbreaking toil building a road named Route Zero, which was never used.
Devil’s Island prison no longer houses criminals, having closed down in 1953, and the group of islands has become a tourist attraction. Visitors are not permitted on Devil’s Island and can only explore Royal Island, where a few cells and the administration buildings were kept.
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