Thursday, May 16, 2013

U.S. Prisons and Devil's Island

Devil's Island

At the top of the prison system pyramid in the U.S. are the so called Super-Maximum prisons. Super Maximum prisons are used to incarcerate “the worst of the worst”. Prisoners include terrorists, and prisoners who are too dangerous to be kept in normal prisons. Inmates have individual cells and are kept locked up for 23 hours per day. Each inmate is allowed one hour of outdoor solitary exercise per day. Inmates are not allowed contact with other prisoners and are under constant surveillance. There is only one supermax prison in the United States federal system, ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado where the U.S. government houses a number of convicted terrorists, gang leaders, and spies.

How do U.S. prisons compare to history’s most infamous prison, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island which also incarcerated “the worst of the worst”?

Perhaps the greatest secret of Devil’s Island is that its grim reputation as the “dry guillotine” was far worse than its reality…depending on who you were. Devil’s Island is the smallest of the three Salvation Islands, sitting off the coast of French Guiana. These islands together with large stretches of coastal French Guiana were used as French penal colonies from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and have come collectively to be known as “Devil’s Island” in popular culture.

Devil’s Island itself was used for political prisoners, the most famous being Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans. The treatment experienced by Dreyfus belies the stories of the horrors of Devil’s Island. A contemporary visitor described the prisoner’s daily routine: “…the prisoner rose every morning between 6 and 7 o'clock, had a cup of chocolate, a bath, and, if the weather permitted, a walk. While taking the bath the prisoner's wrists were tied around with a cord, one end of which was held by a warder. This was to prevent any attempt to commit suicide.”

The non-political prisoners were the most hardened and incorrigible inmates in France. Some eighty thousand men were sent to the penal camps in French Guiana. About 20,000 died of malaria and other tropical diseases, but many died of inmate on inmate violence which was endemic.

The climate was bad, but the inmates made their own Hell on earth, at least according to Henri Charrière, one of the few prisoners to successfully escape from Devil's Island. Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (“butterfly”) wrote a detailed account of life in the camps and of his numerous attempts to escape. The guillotine was used frequently on the island to punish convicts who attacked guards or to punish prisoner-on-prisoner killings.

Francis Lagrange, sentenced to 10 years for counterfeiting currency, famously said that penal life in French Guiana was not as bad as some escapees had made out. What was life like? According to Lagrange, It was no worse than any other prison for the era, and in some ways it was better. Black marketing was universal and usually operated in collaboration with the guards. Much of how the men fared depended on the manner, philosophy, and honesty of particular officers and guards. Labor was largely unsupervised. Personal problems between the men, however, often created very tense situations. Inmate-on-inmate violence was common. It was, he said, “a penitentiary, not a summer camp.”

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