Why Devil’s Island Is the World’s Toughest Prison


You’ve just been told you’re going to
spend the next five years of your life incarcerated, and your sentence will be served at a penal
colony called “Devil’s Island.” Hmm, you think, that’s not the best-sounding
name. But then you remember deviled eggs are mighty
tasty and your mom used to call you a “little devil”. Maybe Devil’s Island is a term of endearment? Maybe not, because on your way over there
a guy next to you, also wearing those fashionable shackles, tells you that three-quarters of
people that go there don’t come back. “What do you mean?” you ask. “What do you think,” he replies. “It’s hell on Earth. You go in, and you die.” ‘Sacre bleu!’ you think, ‘cos you’re
actually French and don’t usually say things like, “Holy Moly”. You’ll have to escape, but as you’ll soon
find out, that is going to be very, very hard. The reason it’s going to be hard is because
you’ll be staying on an almost deserted island. In fact, when you get there you’re quite
surprised that you’re actually allowed to roam about a bit. You even get to sleep in a large room with
other guys. The downside is that most of them are killers. It’s true that many men that go in don’t
come out, and just after you got there you saw dead fellas being carried on stretchers. You try and formulate an escape plane, but
seeing as you’re stuck on an island off the coast of South America, getting back to
Paris could be just a little bit difficult. But one day you hear whispers from other prisoners. They tell tales of amazing escapes. I will go down in convict history, too, you
think. Just wait and see. You know you’re on an island that is part
of the Salvation islands. You know that you’re in the Atlantic Ocean
and about 9 miles from (14 km) the nearest inhabited spot in French Guiana. So, that will be your first stop on your escape
route. It’s time to eat, and you find out the daily
rations consists of a plate of thin soup, one solitary vegetable, one kilogram of bread,
and 250 grams of meat, which isn’t a lot once it’s been cooked. It’s enough to survive on, though, until
you get out. Ok, so time to get the lowdown on this place,
and luckily you meet a guy who’s part of the 25 percent. He’s been on Devil’s Island since 1938,
so that’s six years and he’s still not dead. His name is Jean-Paul. He’s a convicted murderer you hear, but
after killing, his other hobby was studying history. He knows everything about Devil’s Island
and other French penal colonies. He sleeps in the same block as you so you
have time to chat with him. Both of you take a seat, and you tell him
you want to have a history lesson. “Ok, Victor,” he says. “How can I expand the mind of a man from
a Parisian slum? What do you want to know?” “Everything,” you reply excitedly, although
you don’t like the tone of his voice. He tells you that you are staying on a very
small island. It’s only about 34 acres (O.053 square miles)
in size, and so to get from one side to the other isn’t exactly a long walk. You notice that the prison walls aren’t
so high, and Jean-Paul sees the hopefulness written on your face. He reminds you that much of time you’re
in chains and then informs you the water is shark-infested. He also says that if you get caught trying
to escape then if you’re not just beaten to death by the guards, what awaits you is
a special kind of hell. He says he’ll get to that, but first a bit
of history. Jean-Paul tells you that in the 17th century
if you committed a heinous crime you might be sentenced to be an oarsman on a French
Mediterranean galley ship. This was basically slavery, and virtually
all men would row until they died. “Row ‘til you go” is what the convicts
called it. This is supposed to make you feel better,
you assume. He says that after the galley fleet was retired
the men would work as prisoners in the docks, but some were sent to far off islands. The islands were no paradise because the guys
were pretty much stranded. They might starve to death out there, and
so it was a much better life working on the docks. At least there, you had a prayer. Jean-Paul tells you in 1832 the French government
did at least create some laws that ensured that prisoners at least got the basic stuff
they needed to survive. You know, like a bit of food and water. He explains that with all the crime in France
and the fact that some men just couldn’t be rehabilitated in French prisons, the idea
for penal colonies on French-owned islands really took off. “In the 1850s French Guiana was chosen as
the spot for penal colonies. Then in 1854, Napoleon III, sent around 80,000
people to the islands of Isle Royale, Isle St. Joseph as well as the one you are sitting
on.” “What were they doing time for?”, you
ask. He tells you severe civil crimes, but also
political crimes. Get caught spying or just become an enemy
of the state in the eyes of the government and you are virtually guaranteed to make the
trip to one of those islands. He says that you are fortunate in many ways,
and he then explains why. First, you get quite a few breaks from the
pointless labor you are doing, and that’s because so many men just die doing that job. Right now, the French government is not so
harsh. He says there’s a good reason that transportation
to a penal colony is called the “Dry Guillotine.” “You’re actually lucky to even have made
it here in one piece,” he says. “Why’s that,” you respond, now feeling
a little bit irked he keeps calling you lucky. “I’m wearing shackles!” you think, but
you hold back the urge to say anything. You need this information for your escape. He tells you that a lot of men die on the
prison ships coming here. The food isn’t exactly plentiful, but some
guys just pass out and die in those dingy cages. Well, not some, quite a lot actually. You remember your journey on the prison ship. It was pretty horrible, and you didn’t much
like being told your name was now not Victor, but prisoner 69664. Maybe you got a better ship than other men. Jean-Paul says that since there was always
the chance of mutiny and the sailors on the ship being killed by vagabonds and dissidents,
they take a hardline on acting out. On his ship men were scalded with hot steam
just for complaining. He says one time the guys started singing,
and the guards didn’t much like the outbreak of joviality. They locked the doors and threw sulphur sticks
next to the cells. The men almost choked to death. “Merde,” you mutter. “Right,” he says, and carries on with
his morbid history lesson. “The thing is, most men that come here will
never make it back to France. It’s not because everyone gets beat by the
guards, but if you’re seen as out of line they’ll just make sure you starve to death. Ok, so your family back home might send you
food and clothing, but the guards will take their cut from that stuff and if you annoy
them enough they’ll give you nothing. There’s a saying we convicts have here,
and that’s that the guards come with one trunk of stuff and leave with six. Not much gets to the prisoners. People just die from starvation at times.” This wants to make you leave more, and then
he tells you that the mosquitoes carry disease and many prisoners contract one of the various
tropical diseases and that kills them. Even if you have the right nutrients to survive,
there are many other ways to die. Another reason you might have a prolonged
stay is the fact that some guys get sentenced to “forced residence.” Funny, you’ve never heard of that. Jean-Paul tells you that some convicts will
finish their sentence and become guards, a practice known as “doublage.” “You’d think with all that they’ve been
through those guys would be sympathetic,” he says, “but they’re actually the biggest
jerks.” Others you hear just have to stay on the island
not as prisoners, but as residents. They get a bit of land and a house, but that
doesn’t exactly save them from tropical diseases. France doesn’t want them. They become exiles indefinitely.”, says
Jean-Paul. Another problem, he says, is revolt. He tells you about the revolt on the Isle
St. Joseph in 1894 when some guys hacked four guards to death. The convicts didn’t even get off the island. The infantry arrived the next day and killed
them. He says this place is full of thugs and bandits
and they’ll kill you as soon as look at you. They’ll sneak up to your bed at night and
slit your throat if you have something they want. “I don’t see any graves,” you tell Jean-Paul,
saying that with just a hint of suspicion in your voice. Maybe Devil’s island isn’t as bad as he
is making out. “That’s because when you die, and I assure
you, many will die while you’re here, they take the guy to the edge of that cliff over
there and dump him in the ocean. It’s basically feeding time for the sharks,
and that’s one reason they like to hang around this island. We’ve become a really convenient café for
those sharks. If they could speak they’d be saying, ‘Thank
God for crime.’ There’s a saying around here along the lines
of, ‘For every criminal’s misery someone or something is benefiting.” Jean-Paul is turning out to be so depressing. He notices your downtrodden expression and
seems to enjoy it. “I haven’t even told you about solitary
confinement yet.” “Oh God.” “There was a guy in here by the name of
Henri Charrière. We just called him Papillion. This guy was an escape master, but every time
he got off a penal colony he ended up getting caught again. They finally sent him here because Devil’s
Island is the one place no one can escape from. Well, that’s what they thought. They threw Papillon in solitary, for two whole
years. He told me that he suffered more than you
can imagine. Every day in one tiny cement cell with hardly
any food. Every day in almost pitch black darkness. Holed in. The place filled with dangerous insects at
times. Centipedes crawling over his face. Snakes slithering under the door. Ants biting the hell out of him. He said when the warden threw him in there,
he said, ‘Papillon, the best you can hope for now is starvation.’” “Jesus.” “Yep. That’s solitary on Devil’s Island. You couldn’t come up with a worse nightmare
if you tried. How Papillon didn’t die of starvation or
disease is nothing short of a miracle.” “What, he survived.” “Not only survived. One day he was just gone.” “Maybe they killed him?” “Nope, word got around that Papillon had
left the chat. He was off the island. Gone. I heard he’d made a raft out of coconuts.” That’s it, you think, and start looking
around for coconuts. You just know he’s about to tell you something
bad to bring you down. Jean-Paul tells you that after Papillion’s
escape the guards have become paranoid. If they even get a whiff that you want to
escape they’ll break your bones and you’ll wish you never even dreamed of freedom. He tells you that some men got beaten badly
for walking slowly and limping after a beating. He saw a warder shoot a man dead just because
the man said he was tired and then refused to cut down some trees to make a clearing. “Hmm, they’ve been ok with me so far,”
you tell him. “Really,” he says, “I’ve been beaten
lots of times. They left you alone, eh. You don’t know how luck…” “I know, I know, I know… stop telling
me that.” He shoots you a peeved expression, but carries
on with his story. There are people who have been here that did
nothing wrong, he tells you, saying that a French army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was
at the heart of a massive scandal in France, and while totally innocent, he was convicted
of treason. Since they really didn’t want this guy getting
out and talking about corruption, sometimes they kept him in the hole and other times
they just chained him to his bed. He was a really smart guy, and once told someone
that on this island people were no longer human; they were cut off the land of the living. “What happened to him?” He tells you that the whole affair became
huge in France, although you’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t help that you can’t read. Anyway, Jean-Paul tells you that the guy was
eventually found innocent in a retrial. He tells you that just before he arrived on
the island someone wrote a book about Dreyfus’ experience. He let the world know about the, “Dry Guillotine.” “There are rumors that they’ll stop with
this penal colony thing soon,” says Jean-Paul. “People in France couldn’t believe how
we are treated here when they heard the stories. You didn’t hear about it because I’m assuming
you can’t read.” Typical, you think, people only take notice
when an educated man with wealth suffers. If you told people back home about injustice
they’d make a comic strip out of it. Your spirits lift when Jean-Paul tells you
that another guy escaped from the island and made his way to New York. He also wrote a book about it called “Revolte.” That guy was an anarchist, you hear. Another guy wrote a book while actually on
the island, he tells you, and he managed to get that manuscript across the ocean on his
escape. He tells you about 100 convicts have escaped
from all penal colonies. “No way,” you say, feeling really optimistic
now. Then he tells you that many ended up dying
somewhere in the Guinean tropical forest. Some were killed by local tribes, others just
perished of disease or starvation. “This guy is such a downer,” you think,
and tell him to tell you more about the writer escapee. “He wrapped that manuscript in oilskins
to protect it from the water and rain and took it all the way to California. I read it just before they sent me here. It is called, “Dry Guillotine, Fifteen Years
Among the Living Dead.” “Wow,” you say, and ask, even though you
know, “What is it again, that you did to get sent here?” “I killed my wife,” he says. “Why,” you ask, aware that you probably
shouldn’t be doing that. Jean-Paul replies, “She called me condescending.” “How surprising,” you say. “Yeah,” he replies, “That woman didn’t
know how good she had it.” After learning how you would never escape
Devil’s Island, you might want to know about some of the greatest prison escapes ever,
and fortunately we’ve told the stories, so have a look at these, “WWII Prisoner
Escapes Through Toilet” and “The Most Insane Ways Men Escaped from Prison.”

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