Here’s an interesting way of dealing with crime: Ship lawbreakers off to a faraway locale. Mexican officials say one such remote prison site may soon become a tourist hotspot.
The Islas Marías (“Mary Islands”) are a group of four Pacific Ocean islands belonging to Mexico. They lie about 62 miles west of Mexico and 230 miles from California’s southern tip. For 114 years, Mexico used the islands as a penal colony.
A penal (from the word penalty) colony is a place to isolate criminals from other citizens. Judges exiled offenders to a remote location, often an uninhabited isle.
Island penal colonies were used around the world starting in the 1700s. They were often known as “prisons without bars.” The ocean was their natural escape barrier. They were out-of-the-way, escape-proof places to “rehabilitate” inmates through hard labor.
Penal colonies were at least somewhat self-supporting. They provided a way to settle distant lands while keeping the home front peaceful.
Of course, there is no redemption of sins or true peace without Jesus Christ. No amount of hard work or harsh surroundings can redeem a transgressor. God alone changes hearts. (Titus 3:5)
In the 1700s, the U.S. state of Georgia became a penal colony for British debtors. In the 1800s, the island of Bermuda and the continent of Australia also served as penal colonies for prisoners from Great Britain.
Isla Marías Federal Penal Colony was located on Isla María Madre, the largest of the Islas Marías. The Mexican government built the prison in 1905. Officials used Islas Marías prison off and on for the next 114 years. At one time, the prison held 8,000 criminals.
But prisoners weren’t the island’s only inmates. Some employees of the federal government worked there too. The Catholic Church also had an outpost on the island.
One by one, remote island jails closed around the globe. Eventually, the Isla Marías prison was the last penal colony in the Americas. The far-flung lockup was costing Mexico more per prisoner than did mainland jails. In 2019, Mexican officials closed the prison permanently.
Now President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says ferries and cruise ships may soon visit the former penal colony.
Officials plan to build a dock for large ships on Isla Maria Madre. Visitors will be able to tour the remote island jail. Officials compare the Isla Marías prison to the former U.S. prison on Alcatraz Island, also now a tourist attraction.
Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco says tours will offer visitors “contact with the former island prison, which for 100 years sheltered numerous criminals.” For most folks, a brief tourist visit is all the prison contact they want.