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Island penal colony is the last of its kind in the Americas

Isla Marias prison will be cultural center named for Communist writer who was an inmate twice

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In this 2005 file photo, an inmate embraces a visitor at the Islas Marias federal prison island, located 90 miles south of Mazatlan, Mexico. President Andres. Photo: Associated Press

Mexico’s infamous Isla Marias prison is the last island penal colony in a hemisphere once dotted with remote “Papillon”-like island jails.

The four Pacific islands — only one of which is inhabited — will be turned into a cultural and environmental education center, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday.

The former prison will be rechristened Walls of Water: José Revueltas, after a book the Communist writer wrote that was inspired by two periods of his imprisonment on the island for political activism. The book helped to make him one of its most famous former inmates.

The government will relocate about two-thirds of the 659 remaining inmates and free about 200 others from the islands, 70 miles/110 kilometers off the coast of Nayarit.

The prison founded in 1905 on Maria Madre passed through periods of infamous brutality. When Panama closed its Isla Coiba penal colony in 2004, Isla Marias became the last one remaining in the Americas.

Lopez Obrador said the new Islas Marias cultural center will be named after Jose Revueltas, a novelist who was imprisoned there and wrote the novel “Walls of Water.”

Times have changed on the notorious penal colony. In more recent years, inmates serving long sentences lived on the “Mexican Alcatraz” with their families.

“It is the history of punishments, of torture, of repression for more than a century,” Lopez Obrador said of the prison, which as recently as 2013 held 8,000 inmates.

Far from the bloody reputation of places like Devil’s Island — the French Guiana penal colony shuttered in 1946 — toward the end Islas Marias had harbored many lower-risk or well-behaved inmates for whom the “prison without walls” was viewed as step toward release or rehabilitation. Some prisoners were even allowed to live with their families.

While the prison kept mass tourism at bay, the islands suffered severe environmental degradation for over a century, said Ramon Ojeda Mestre, who served from 2000 to 2004 as head of the environmental recovery program for the islands.

“It protected the three uninhabited islands, but Maria Madre suffered a lot of environmental deterioration,” said Ojeda Mestre.

Ojeda Mestre battled to reforest the island with tropical hardwoods, which had been largely cut down to build the penal colony and furnish it. He also battled to rid the uninhabited islands of invasive, non-native feral goats, dogs and cats.

“We lost a lot of boa constrictors, because inmates would kill them to make belts out of their skins,” he recalled. That was one of the many cottage industries that sprang up. Inmates also fermented fruit for home-made alcoholic beverages and sold an endangered parrot, the yellow-headed Tres Marias parrot, which is found nowhere else in the world.

“The inmates captured the parrots to sell them,” he said. “Their relatives would smuggle them out clandestinely” when they came for visits, and sell the birds on the mainland.

Ojeda Mestre’s battle was part of an early effort to turn the penal colony into a nature reserve, but that plan fell victim to the war on drugs when the government argued it needed more prison space.

In the end, the 12-hour boat rides that relatives had to endure to visit inmates was “cruel,” Ojeda Mestre said, calling the decision to close the prison “an extraordinary piece of news that should be celebrated throughout the Americas.”

Indeed, the hemisphere began turning its back on the isolated prisons decades ago, the Associated Press reported.

Chile closed its Santa Maria prison island in the late 1980s, Costa Rica’s Isla San Lucas penal colony closed in 1991 and Brazil’s Isla Grande in 1994. Peru dramatically ended its El Fronton island prison in 1986: Gunboats blew up most of the buildings to put down a riot, killing more than 100 inmates.

Island penal colonies were used around the world starting in the 1700s as remote, escape-proof places to “rehabilitate” inmates through hard labor. Most also tried to be self-supporting and to help settle remote territories.

The government said it costs about $150 a day to house each inmate at Isla Marias, far higher than other jails, and there is plenty of space in the federal prisons on the mainland.

The islands are also routinely battered by hurricanes, the last of which caused about $150 million in damage to the prison facilities.

The last other such prison in the Americas, Panama’s Coiba Island penal colony, was closed in 2005 and turned into a nature reserve. The jungle is slowly swallowing the buildings, providing a glimpse of what could happen at Islas Marias.

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