Devil's Island – French Guiana - Atlas Obscura

French Guiana

Devil's Island

An abandoned colonial French prison notorious for its hellish conditions. 

There have been many names given to the notorious island prison colony in French Guiana to describe the brutal living conditions of the prisoners who were sent there: the man eater, the dry guillotine, or as it is best known, Île du Diable, the Devil’s Island.

The island chain was discovered by French settlers between 1763 and 1765 during the expedition of Kourou, the goal of which was to spread the power and influence of the French colonial empire. It was a huge disaster, as more than 60 percent of the settlers died of fever or hunger. In 1797, the French government gradually transformed Guiana into a penal colony, establishing labor camps inspired by the English model in Australia. There were two goals: emptying the French jails of the worst criminals and building up a workforce to inhabit and develop the struggling colony.  

Originally established for exiled political prisoners, by 1891 it was the toughest convicts who were sent to what became known as Devil’s Island. Usually, a prisoner was sent to the “dry guillotine” if he had tried several times to escape, or after several attempted or successful murders. The island of Saint Joseph became the most feared place of detention of the colony. The prisoners in these cells knew the chance of escape was close to nonexistent: The strong current surrounding the island, hungry sharks, the day and night surveillance were some of the insurmountable obstacles. What’s more, the chances of surviving within the prison weren’t much better.

Prisoners had to follow very strict rules. Detained in dark cells, they were rigorously forbidden to talk, smoke, read, or even sit before nightfall. They were locked up alone in a tiny cell whose ceiling was a grid so that guards could keep a close eye from a raised footbridge above, where they patrolled in slippers to catch them prisoners by surprise). Convicts were expected to maintain complete silence; talking to a guard often ended up in a punishment. Amid dreadful living conditions, one out three inmates died there from diseases inherent to the area, as well as other causes such as hunger and violence. 

These terrible living conditions were eventually exposed to the general public, and the imprisonment system ended in 1938. The penal colony at Sant Joseph island was not closed until after World War II, however, finally shuttering in 1946. There were some attempts to occupy the island after that: a summer camp, a police station, a plant oil factory, and even a shark fishing factory. But all these initiatives failed. The island were finally abandoned and the buildings overtaken by nature. Some of the colonial structures on the island have since been restored, and opened to visitors to explore its dark history.