Notorious French Prison Turns Into a No-Man’s Land
Once there was no escape from Devil’s Island. Now there is no access.
The irony may be unintended, but visitors to what used to be the world’s most infamous prison are warded off by a sign saying: “Access to Devil’s Island is strictly forbidden.”
Year after year, from the 19th century and well into the 20th, inmates dreamed in vain of leaving the tiny island of palm trees and jagged volcanic stone and returning home to France.
Now the ruins of their stone houses lie crumbling, but the island remains a byword for cruelty, immortalized in the memoirs of Henri “Papillon” Charriere and the notorious anti- Semitism-driven miscarriage of justice against Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain.
Devil’s Island and its two sister islands are each separated by about 250 yards of water and lie eight miles off the South American mainland. Until 1946, they were the most isolated penitentiary in the French empire.
Today, the Iles du Salut, or “Islands of Salvation,” are the most popular tourist destination in French Guiana. Each year, thousands visit Royale, the largest, once the administrative center and first stop for convicts.
The tourists step off ferry boats within sight of a channel where jailers threw dead prisoners to the sharks, not bothering to give them a proper burial.
Of the islands that rise from the Atlantic in a snug triangle, only Ile du Diable -- Devil’s Island -- is closed to the public. There is no dock on the rugged shore that gave the island its name; officials say swift currents make landings too hazardous.
“I think it’s better nobody goes,” tour guide Bernadette Harlepp says as she sails past the island on a catamaran. “It has a very bad history. It’s out of respect for the past.”
During nearly a century starting in 1852, some 70,000 convicts were sent to the “bagne,” or penal colony. Diseases such as yellow fever and dysentery killed thousands. Many died without seeing France again.
“Devil’s Island and the bagnes will always remain a shameful, indelible stain on France’s history,” said Denis Seznec, whose grandfather, Guillaume Seznec, was imprisoned on Royale for 14 years. “The cruelest thing about the islands was that they mixed the worst criminals with all the rest. Savage murderers were put together with petty thieves and those arrested for being vagabonds.”
His grandfather was convicted of murder but proclaimed his innocence until his death in France in 1954. Seznec, 55, says the islands’ history is “a reminder that the greatest countries -- and greatest ideas -- can produce horrible monstrosities.”
Charriere, or “Papillon” (butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest, recalled the horrors of prison life in his 1969 autobiography, which later became the movie “Papillon” starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
He described sharks answering a ringing bell by rushing to the channel to devour convicts’ corpses as they slid off the boat.
Nowadays, tourists bathe in the waters and sharks are seldom seen.
The French National Space Agency assumed ownership of the islands in 1971 and launches satellite-carrying Ariane rockets from the mainland. Infrared telescopes on Royale track rockets as they arc toward space. As a safety measure, employees of the inn on Royale are evacuated to the mainland during launches.
There are no such uses for Devil’s Island, which lies abandoned, thickly covered with coconut palms. And there are no plans to open it to tourism like famed island prison Alcatraz.
Pierre Moskwa of the Guiana Space Center says Devil’s Island should stay off-limits to visitors and serve as a monument to the past. “It’s a sanctuary,” he said.
Across the water, on Royale, is a sanctuary of a different kind, where tourists sleep comfortably in jailers’ homes that have been converted into holiday cottages.
At Royale’s prison compound, rust crumbles from cell bars and iron shackle rings. In a courtyard, four blocks that used to support a guillotine lie on earth once stained with blood.
At that time, all of French Guiana was a penal colony, and many prisoners never left the South American mainland, but hundreds of serious offenders were sent to the islands.
Devil’s Island, the smallest of the three and most exposed to waves and wind, was reserved for political prisoners. Many were free to move about the island, a 15-minute walk from end to end.
Incorrigible convicts were sent to St. Joseph Island for solitary confinement in a compound that prisoners called “mangeuse d’hommes,” or devourer of men.
Prisoners weren’t allowed to speak a word and could only see guards pacing above them through barred ceilings. Sentences ranged from six months to five years. Some convicts went mad. Others killed themselves.
Papillon described two years when he paced in his cell and lay still on his wood bunk as poisonous centipedes crawled over him.
More than half a century later, the thick roots of ficus trees stretch through the corridors and down uneven stone steps. The air is eerily still inside high walls that block the breeze.
Madeleine Calcagni, who runs the Royale inn and restaurant, stays away from St. Joseph: “I couldn’t do business over there because people there suffered a lot, and you could feel it.”
It’s an odd business turning a prison into a tourist attraction. Visitors pose for photos gripping cell bars, close themselves in dark solitary cells and bask in the sun next to a pool built with forced labor.
“It’s like a paradise, but it’s strange to know that before it was a prison,” said Audrey Bruyere, 23, a Paris student.
The islands teem with animals introduced by humans: Macaws screech overhead, squirrel monkeys hurtle between branches and large rodents known as agoutis scamper in the underbrush.
Tourists sip wine at the open-air restaurant overlooking Devil’s Island, where prisoners spent years receiving their provisions along a cable that stretched across from Royale.
Perhaps the most famous of those on Devil’s Island was Dreyfus, a Jew falsely accused of spying for the Germans and imprisoned alone from 1895 to 1899. The victim of a paroxysm of French Jew-hatred and an army too proud to admit its mistake, he was isolated in a small stone house, tormented by mosquitoes, hungry ants and loneliness.
“Impossible to sleep,” he wrote in his diary the night of April 14, 1895. “This cage, in front of which the watchman walks like a phantom that appears in my dreams, the itch of all the beasts that run across my skin, the anger that roars in my heart.”
He eventually returned to France when evidence pointed to another officer, and he was exonerated. His tiny house of raw stone still stands near the southern tip of Devil’s Island.
His case brought infamy to the island, and its name became synonymous with the horrors of the penal colony. But the prison continued to function until public opinion finally forced its closing.
At least five prisoners escaped from the islands, one using a canoe in 1921 and four using a stolen steam ship in 1944, historian Eugene Epailly said. Others died or were arrested trying to escape. Most didn’t dare brave the sea, Epailly says. “The sharks were the best guards.”
Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Paris contributed to this story.