On This Day: French 'Devil's Island' prison closes

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: French 'Devil's Island' prison closes

AUGUST 22, 1953: France’s notorious Devil’s Island – a prison so brutal and isolated that few exiled inmates survived – closed on this day 60 years ago.

The tropical disease-ridden penal colony, nine miles north of French Guiana amid shark-infested water, was designed as a vengeful deterrent to soaring urban crime.

Until 1907, prisoners, including Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of treason, were also expected to settle in South America after serving their sentence.

Few of the 80,000 exiles returned to France – and those who did came back as broken men with horror stories that authorities hoped would scare other criminals straight.

Ever fewer men – and none of the small number of female convicts who were sent to Guiana to populate the colony – managed to escape.

One convict who claimed to have successfully escaped Devil’s Island and returned home was Henri Charriere, whose autobiography inspired the 1973 movie Papillon.

In it, safecracker Charriere, played by Steve McQueen, is wrongly convicted of murder and he helps a wealthy forger Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) flee after becoming friends.

Among the indignities suffered by the protagonist  - after defending Dega against a sadistic guard – is spending two years in solitary confinement.

The final six months – after guards discover Dega has been smuggling Charriere food – is spent in total darkness and with half rations.


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French authorities, however, have disputed Charriere’s claims and found papers suggesting he was only imprisoned on the mainland and not Devil’s Island.

Yet inmates did endure these sorts of punishments – along with deadly attacks by fellow prisoners and lethal tropical diseases.

A British Pathe newsreel from 1933 shows 673 doomed prisoners being shipped from France at a time of growing unrest over their plight.

By 1938 public outrage had reached boiling point after the horrendous conditions they faced were highlighted in Rene Belbenoit’s book Dry Guillotine.

In response, French ministers announced plans to close Devil’s Islands and the other nearby Bagne de Cayennes penal colonies.


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However, the outbreak of World War II – followed by the German occupation and puppet Vichy government – delayed this operation.

But between 1946 and 1953, the prisons were closed – one by one – with Devil’s Island the last to free its inmates.

Today the islands are a tourist attraction – with two open to the public and hosting museums where inmates once suffered in the heat.

Although the mysterious Devil’s Island, whose prison complex is now overgrown with jungle plants, can only be viewed by boat.