Mexico's last island penal colony may now host cruise ships

FILE - In this March 17, 2019 file photo, a mural of Nelson Mandela, who spent many of his imprisoned years in an island prison in South Africa, adorns a gate in front of the dock where prison staff and inmates arrive in Navy boats to the now closed Islas Maria penal colony located off Mexico's Pacific coast. Mexican officials said on Saturday, March 13, 2021, that ferries and cruise ships may soon be visiting the former prison, after the last island penal colony in the Americas was closed and turned into an environmental education center in 2019.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
FILE - In this March 17, 2019 file photo, a mural of Nelson Mandela, who spent many of his imprisoned years in an island prison in South Africa, adorns a gate in front of the dock where prison staff and inmates arrive in Navy boats to the now closed Islas Maria penal colony located off Mexico's Pacific coast. Mexican officials said on Saturday, March 13, 2021, that ferries and cruise ships may soon be visiting the former prison, after the last island penal colony in the Americas was closed and turned into an environmental education center in 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – Mexican officials said ferries and cruise ships may soon be visiting the former Isla Marias prison, after the last island penal colony in the Americas was closed and turned into an environmental education center in 2019.

The education camp hasn’t gone very well — only 40 youths have been trained on the island — and the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is now trying a different tack, because the island hasn't been offsetting the costs associated with keeping it open.

Officials said Saturday they are planning to build a dock for larger ships on the Isla Madre main island, the only one of the four Marias islands that is inhabited. Visitors will be able to tour the remote island jail, but not stay overnight. Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco described future tours.

“The experience begins with the cruise ship or ferry arriving from Mazatalán or San Blas, to Isla Madre, and on the voyage the passengers can admire the beauty of the ocean," Torruco said. It would be quite a long ride; the four islands are located 70 miles (110 kilometers) off the Pacific coast of Nayarit state.

“Visitors will have their first contact with the former island prison which for 100 years sheltered numerous criminals,” Torruco said. Officials compared it to the now-closed U.S. prison at Alcatraz, and said tourist visits could start within three months.

The penal colony, founded in 1905, passed through some periods of infamous brutality, and as recently as 2013, the Islas Marias held 8,000 inmates.

The hemisphere was once dotted with remote island jails like the one depicted in the movie “Papillon,” but they all gradually closed. When Panama closed its Isla Coiba penal colony in 2004, Isla Marias became the last one remaining in the Americas.

But far from the bloody reputation of places like Devil’s Island — the French Guiana penal colony shuttered in 1946 — toward the end, the Islas Marias harbored many lower-risk or well-behaved inmates and the colony was viewed as a step toward release or rehabilitation.

While the prison kept mass tourism at bay, the islands suffered severe environmental degradation from over a century of use as a penal colony.

Island penal colonies were used around the world starting in the 1700s as remote, escape-proof places to “rehabilitate” inmates through hard labor. Often known as “prisons without bars,” with the ocean serving as the most effective barrier to escape, the penal colonies were also known for being at least in part self-supporting and a way to settle remote islands.

But in the end, the Islas Marias wound up costing Mexico far more per prisoner than did mainland jails.

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.