Why No One Has Ever Escaped Devil’s Island Prison


Some 70,000 convicts were sent here but very
few made it out alive. With conditions harsh enough to shatter the
spirits of even the most resilient criminals, this was truly a land of torment, the final
destination for many unfortunate souls. Welcome to Devil’s Island, the world’s
most notorious prison to ever be forgotten. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? With a treacherous landscape and an ominous
past, you’d better watch your step because danger lurks in every direction. The name, “Devil’s island,” was actually
coined by the prisoners themselves, which should give you some clue about the conditions
that they lived in. Officially, it was called “Bagne de Cayenne,”
otherwise known as the penal colony of Cayenne. Located about 9 to 10 miles off the Atlantic
coast from Kourou, a small town in French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South
America, reside three small, rocky islands. These are known as the Salvation Islands,
also known as the Iles du Salut in French. In this case, the term, “salvation,” would
seem like an oxymoron. The smallest of the three islands is Devil’s
island, a narrow strip of land about 3,900 feet long and roughly 1,320 feet wide. Don’t let the palm trees fool you. This was no island paradise. Today an overgrown jungle is slowly hiding
the remnants of what was once a penal, or “exile,” colony, a virtual hell here on
Earth. Established by Emperor Napoleon III in 1852,
the island was originally used as a leper colony to quarantine people with leprosy before
later being used to incarcerate political prisoners and criminals. Throughout a long stretch of time consisting
of around 100 years, many were convicted here, including murderers, rapists, and those deemed
as an overall threat to society. Some men, however, were sent here despite
being innocent of the charges that were staged against them. It didn’t matter what category of criminal
you were listed under, if you were unlucky enough to be sent here, you endured the same
fate as everyone else. Items on the agenda included squeezing into
tight living spaces, getting covered in dirt, and being abused by other inmates. Whether you were a petty thief or a savage
murderer, you could expect to be stripped of your identity and thrown into the mix. You were forced to cohabit the same environment
and mingle with those more dangerous than you. Not surprisingly, fights were a regular occurrence
amongst the prisoners, many of which ended in murders that later went unpunished. No one really cared whether people lived or
died. Isolated on a treacherous island with no way
out, why would anyone bother punishing the prisoners? It “only required paperwork,” a guide
was quoted saying to Atlas Obscura during a visit to the island. “It was easier,” he explained, “to let
nature take its course and let them die of harsh labor, tropical disease or a failed
attempt to escape.” When the prisoners were punished on rare occasions,
they were commonly put in isolation for months at a time. Imagine going a long time in a dark room with
no one to talk to. Some convicts were even placed in deep, 12
by 12-foot holes with bars on top instead of a roof so that they’d be subject to all
kinds of weather conditions without a shelter to protect them. One prisoner was reportedly tied to a tree
deep in the jungle as punishment for attempting to attack a guard. He was left to endure the elements, vulnerable
to nature’s wrath. The next day, he was discovered dead. Out of 70,000-something men, three-quarters
of them died from disease, hunger and mistreatment. Many also fell prey to insects such as ants,
as well as bats and rats picking at their rotting bodies. Many convicts even died on the way to the
island since even the trip in and of itself was extremely dangerous. Many inmates were forced to share tiny, cramped
cells with one another in filthy conditions. To put this into perspective, these cells
were about the same size as the common household bathroom. As an exercise, if you were to try squeezing
your entire family into one, maybe you’d have a better idea of what it might’ve been
like. Say goodbye to your privacy. We wouldn’t recommend trying this if you’re
claustrophobic though. After 1885, the population of Devil’s Island
greatly increased as the French government started sending more prisoners, including
an influx of more convicts charged with smaller offences, not just hardened criminals. The conditions became ever more crowded as
a result. Prisoners were routinely shackled at night,
their legs tied to an iron rod. With the natural desire to shift and adjust
your sleeping position throughout the night, it’s easy to imagine that this would have
been torture. During the day, prisoners were forced to move
around in chains. With starvation being common, many resembled
walking skeletons. A lot of prisoners anticipated death and probably
welcomed it when it finally came. Though there is a graveyard located on the
island to this day, most of the prisoners were not buried here. Due to its hazardous rocks and powerful ocean
currents surrounding the island, safe access was only possible using a cable car, which
crossed the 60-foot-wide channel between Devil’s Island and the main island, Ile Royale. Though on every prisoner’s mind, escape
was very difficult to achieve, some might even say impossible! The rough landscape was its own challenge
with sharp rocks and piranha infested rivers, and sharks also posed as a serious threat. These killer monsters circled the island constantly,
eagerly waiting to feast on the prisoners. They were even said to respond to the ring
of a bell like trained dogs whenever it was time to dispose of the corpses. The bodies of dead convicts were on the menu,
loaded into wheelbarrows and dumped into the ocean. The piranha’s were basically handed a free
meal on a silver platter. Many who tried to escape also perished in
the water. One well-known prisoner to be brought to Devil’s
island was a man named Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Born in 1859, this French army officer was
the son of a wealthy Jewish family. He was accused of selling military secrets
to the Germans in 1894 and was put on trial for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment
and arrived at Devil’s Island on April 13, 1895. His case, however, initiated a 12-year controversy
known as The Dreyfus Affair, which made a lasting impact on the political and social
history of the French Third Republic. During this time, the French press was highly
anti-semitic and the evidence that had been used against him was largely fabricated. Dreyfus reportedly cried out, giving a passionate
plea. He said, “I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!” but it made no difference. Despite having plead his innocence, public
opinion welcomed the verdict and wanted him to be sentenced. Dreyfus was used as symbolism for anti-semitic
propaganda, spreading popular opinion about the supposed disloyalty of French Jews. Not everyone was convinced, however, and doubt
over Dreyfus’s guilt spread like wildfire. The case sparked widespread public attention
and split France apart into two opposing groups, those who were for his guilty sentence and
those who were opposed to it. Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and released
once it was realized that he was unjustly condemned, but not before spending over 4
long, brutal years on Devil’s Island. Considering that more than 40% of prisoners
did not survive their first year on the island and few lived to see their release date, Dreyfus
was very lucky. He was released on June 5, 1899. He had written a journal, detailing his captivity
in more than 1,000 letters. So how about those who managed to escape from
Devil’s Island prison? There are very few who succeeded, one allegedly
being Clement Duval in 1901. He was an anarchist who fled to New York City
and wrote a book about his imprisonment called Revolte. Another escapee was a man named Rene Belbenoit
who escaped by helping a film company. He earned $100 which he used to bring a Chinese
merchant boat to pick him up. When the boat arrived, he hid in it and sailed
away. He spent months recovering with a native tribe
off the mainland, making his way on foot through South America. He walked through central America, up to Mexico
before finally entering into the United States. Now that’s quite a hike! Belbenoit published two books called Hell
on Trial and Dry Guillotine: fifteen years Among the Living Dead, which spread awareness
about what went on in the penal colony. There must have been something about the island
that drove successful escapees into authorship. Why else would they want to recount their
experiences by writing books about it? Rene Belbenoit made a mistake by traveling
back to his home country of France to argue his case. Upon his arrival, he was immediately captured
and returned to the colony to be imprisoned once again. He was eventually released though and went
on to live a free life in California where he worked as a technical advisor for Warner
Brothers during the making of the 1944 film, Passage to Marseille. He also founded Rene’s Ranch Store in Lucerne
Valley and later obtained legal U.S. citizenship in 1956. Perhaps the most popular and infamous escape
from Devil’s Island was done by Henri Charrière and Sylvain. Born in 1906, Henri Charrière was framed
for murder and transported to the prison in 1930 from France. He was otherwise known as “Papillon,”
the French word for “butterfly.” He earned his name due to a butterfly tattoo
on his chest. During his escape, he leaped from a cliff
on the island into the sea with his companion, Sylvain, using two sacks filled with coconuts
as lifebuoys. It took the pair 3 days to drift to the mainland
and they somehow managed to avoid being eaten by sharks. Sylvain died shortly after reaching the shore,
supposedly due to getting caught in quicksand. It must have been really aggravating for Sylvain
to make it all the way across shark infested waters for 3 days just to die this way. Henri, on the other hand, was caught and thrown
into another prison, the Bagne at El Dorado, but was soon released to live a free life
in Venezuela from there. After his ordeal was over, Henri wrote the
book, Papillon, which detailed his experiences. French authorities attempted to discredit
him, denying his claim that he had escaped from Devil’s Island. They even went so far as to say that Henri
was never sentenced there to begin with. Critics go on to say that Henri should have
admitted that his book was based on fiction. We’d be curious to know whether you believe
Papillon is based on fabricated accounts of events, or if French authorities were just
trying to cover it up. It seems pretty suspicious, to say the least,
especially since many aspects of the story bear more than a few similarities to a memoir
by another Devil’s Island prisoner, called Dry Guillotine, which had been written thirty
years before Papillon. Nevertheless, Henri’s Papillon name continued
to live on in infamy upon his death in 1973. To this day, the name, “Papillon,” can
be found carved in the floor of cell 47 on Devil’s Island. There were even movie adaptations made from
his story. If you’re looking for something to watch
tonight, there are two different versions of the film to choose from. We went ahead and did the research for you
to make your life a little easier. The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes give an 83%
for the 1973 version of the movie Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. A poorer score of 52% was given for the recent
2017 version of the film. You’re welcome! Though the transportation of prisoners to
the French penal colony was abolished in 1938, the last of the prisoners continued to remain
on Devil’s Island for much longer than that. The closure of the facility was delayed upon
the outbreak of World War II. Starting in 1946, French penal colonies everywhere
were gradually being terminated one by one. Devil’s Island, however, was the last to
shut its doors in 1953. For the most part, it was largely forgotten
by the rest of the world. Today, however, Devil’s Island is a popular
tourist destination because of its dark past and the fame it acquired from the books and
film adaptations of Papillon’s story. There is a sort of twisted irony in the fact
that so many prisoners could not flee the island in the past, but, now, you can’t
get on the island even if you wanted to. This is because it is closed to the public. Though you cannot actually step foot on the
island itself, however, you can view it offshore from a charter boat. Many also take helicopters over it just to
sneak an aerial peek at the ruins. The other two islands in the group of the
three Salvation islands are open for access to the public and contain some of the original
buildings restored as museums. So, what’s the appeal of visiting exactly? This may be, in large part, due to the movies. Or, perhaps, some people have a ghoulish sense
of curiosity for the atrocities that went on there. Who knows? Like with any story involving a place with
a dark past, there are some who claim that Devil’s Island is haunted. Visitors have said they’ve seen ghosts of
prisoners everywhere in the crumbling ruins. If we could ask, our question for the ghosts
would be, “if you died wanting to escape the island in life, why spend all your time
there after death?” Perhaps it is a form of purgatory for those
lost spirits who still can’t find their way to freedom. What do you think? Is Devil’s Island haunted? Would you ever want to visit there as a tourist? Have you seen any of the two Papillon movies
we mentioned and did you like them? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video
What Happens In The H Unit At Federal Supermax Prison! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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