STORIES

13 Prison Islands That Became Island Paradises

By David Jenison on October 12, 2017


In the 1980 film Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield jokes, "Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate" as he plays golf at the Bushwood Country Club. His character might have had even stronger feelings about wasted real estate if he knew the beloved island paradises listed below were all once used as prisons. 

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Fernando de Noronha (FDN) is a 21-island archipelago with one main island that a limited number of people can visit at a time. FDN likely inspired the setting for Thomas More’s novel Utopia, and Charles Darwin, Jacques Cousteau and Amerigo Vespucci all visited its shores in different centuries. In a classic case of misused space, FDN served as a Brazilian prison from the late 1700s to 1957, meaning Darwin checked out both animal and human wildlife during his 1832 stop. While the human wildlife is now limited to drunk tourists at the island bars, FDN boasts hundreds of spinner dolphins in Baía dos Golfinhos, turtle nests at Praia do Leão, baby marine life at the Praia do Atalaia tidal pools and an abundance of aquatic wonders in the surrounding waters

St. Helena, United Kingdom

St. Helena might be a British territory, but it's in the middle of nowhere: The Atlantic island sits between Angola and Brazil, with the African country being the closest neighbor at 1,200 miles. Such an obscure place, however, once held a very famous prisoner: Napoléon Bonaparte. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the British exiled him to St. Helena, which is where he died in 1821. He certainly could have done worse. The 47-square-mile rocky island is full of geological contrasts that include colorful deserts, mountain ridges, lush valleys, green pastures and bronze volcanic cliffs stretching a 1,000 feet into the South Atlantic sky. Travel to the island is difficult (boat ride from South Africa, anyone?), but its inaccessibility means fewer tourists telling you about their last Disney cruise. 

Con Son, Vietnam

Welcome to a postcard-perfect island in the South China Sea with about as many Western tourists as Pyongyang. Con Son, a 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is the big island in a largely ignored 16-island archipelago. This is the first destination on this list—but not the last—to claim the Devil's Island nickname based on its horrific penal colony. The French established the prison and committed such devilish deeds as working 914 men to death building a jetty. The terror ended after more than a century when the U.S. lost the war, and maybe its dark past keeps Con Son tourism at a minimum. Visit now before that changes. The Six Senses Con Dao is the first of what could be many resorts coming to an island with warm greenish-blue waters, colorful jungle flora, fish-abundant coral reefs and quiet streets that could double as a 19th-century landscape painting. 

Patmos, Greece

This mountainous Greek island served as a prison during the Roman Empire, and its most famous convict, Saint John, dropped acid there when he wrote the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. Or at least we assume he dove down the rabbit hole when he wrote about angelic trumpeters, seven-headed dragons, scorpion-tailed locusts, celestial wormwood, the Beast, Babylonian whores and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If you're down to party like the man who introduced 666, the island is a good place for friends to shroom and act out psychedelic passages like "All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication" (Rev. 18:13). While it might be a stretch to call the rocky island a paradise, Patmos now claims several UNESCO World Heritage inscriptions, including the millennium-old Monastery of St. John

Île Sainte-Marguerite, France

Who was the infamous man in the iron mask? No one knows for sure, but the 17th-century French prisoner inspired writings by Voltaire and hash-eater Alexandre Dumas and a 1998 film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. The mysterious prisoner spent 34 years at various prisons, including more than a decade at Île Sainte-Marguerite in the French Riviera. The island, which sits a half mile offshore from Cannes, held prisoners at Fort Royal from the 17th to the 20th century. Today, the prison is a tourist attraction and a maritime museum, but the island itself is a paradise for nature lovers with 152 acres of forest filled with hiking paths. Water activities are also popular on the island, which features a seaside pond where fresh and saltwater mix.

Ponza, Italy

Ponza, a crescent-shaped rocky island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, is known to Wes Anderson fans as a setting for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but this upscale summer destination once served as a penal colony. Benito Mussolini jailed countless people here, and Mussolini himself spent a few weeks imprisoned here after his arrest. As a sign of the island's gentrification, the place that held the dictator is now a swanky boutique hotel. Today, the Italian hotspot is popular with big-budget jetsetters who come for the sandy beaches, hidden coves, colorful sheer cliffs, wine vineyards and amazing restaurants that serve culinary delights from the island-based farms and local fishermen. Grotta della Maga Circe is named after the sorceress in Homer's The Odyssey, named as such because many believe Aeaea island is actually Ponza in the Greek epic. 

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

For 13 unlucky years between 1946 and 1959, Ecuador turned the largest Galápagos island, Isabela, into a penal colony that housed about 300 prisoners in harsh conditions. Six volcanoes merged to form the island, and since most of the volcanoes remain active, Isabela lacks the lush vegetation found on the other islands. However, it has an abundance of animals, birds and marine life that includes wild tortoises, penguins, sea iguanas, Charles Darwin's finches, hawks, red rock crabs and seabirds known as boobies. And yes, the island sells ironic boobies t-shirts, but you should be locked up for buying one. 

Asinara, Sardinia

Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is an autonomous region of Italy, and Asinara is a small island off its northwestern tip. Made up of four mountainous areas connected by a narrow strip of coastline, Asinara is virtually uninhabited save for numerous animal species that include wild albino donkeys. In the late 19th century, the island became a penal colony, and nearly 24,000 captured soldiers were jailed here during World War I. In the late 20th century, the island prison also housed Salvatore "Totò the Short" Riina, former chief of the Sicilian Mafia. The prison closed in 1997, and while the island lacks significant tourism infrastructure, Asinara is now a wildlife and marine reserve beloved by nature lovers. 

Coíba, Panama

The former pirate haunt became a penal colony in 1919 with 15 miles of shark-infested waters separating it from the southern Panamanian coast. Under military dictators like Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, the jailers engaged in hideous human rights violations, and hotel chains typically don't line up to build resorts where prisoners were famously fed to the sharks. This means Coíba and the 38 surrounding islands are undeveloped territory with mangrove swamps, sparkling beaches, unparalleled biodiversity and virgin tropical rainforest. As National Geographic described it, the island "makes those who visit its shores feel as if they’re stepping back in time." One year after the prison facility closed in 2004, the entire Coíba National Park earned UNESCO honors as a World Heritage site. 

Pianosa, Italy 

From Emperor Augustus' nephew in the first century to Mafia bosses in the 20th, Italy's Devil's Island held prisoners for centuries before the maximum-security prison closed in 1998. The T-bone shaped island was also the setting for the 1961 novel Catch-22, which followed a U.S. bombardier stationed on Pianosa during World War II. Post-prison camp, the island boasts white sand beaches and abundant marine life in transcendent turquoise waters that only a handful of visitors can enjoy each day. Likewise, special authorization is required to fish and dive, which helps keep the waters beautiful. Interestingly, Pianosa started a program in 2000 that allows a handful of prisoners to live on the island in exchange for running a local hotel, making this the perfect place for ladies wanting a bad boy on a leash. 

Sado Island, Japan

Starting in the 8th century, this wild and remote island in the Sea of Japan servedas a medieval prison for those who pissed off the rulers. One such prisoner, Emperor Juntoku, got sent here in the 13th century after losing a war with the Hōjō clan shoguns. After nearly a 1,000 years, rulers stopped banishing people to Sado, and the art-centric "Island of Performing Arts" emerged with centuries-old artistic traditions and a strong and independent creative community. Geographically, Sado is Japan's sixth largest island, but a pair of mountain ranges keeps most of the island undeveloped and attractive to nature lovers. 

Pantelleria, Sicily

Smack dab between Tunisia and Sicily, the Black Pearl of the Mediterranean is a volcanic island that first served as a penal colony during Spanish and Italian Fascist rule. While the island lacks sandy beaches, the rocky waters are great for snorkeling, and Pantelleria boasts hot springs, wine estates (including a wine resort), a natural sauna, natural swimming pools, geysers, fumaroles and the gorgeous Venus' Mirror lake in an extinct volcano crater. The most Instagram-able spot on the island, however, is Elephant Arc, a rock formation that resembles an elephant dipping its trunk into the rich blue sea. The island has yet to become a major tourist destination, but Giorgio Armani is reportedly a fan, and the 2015 European film A Bigger Splash (with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes) takes place on Pantelleria. 

Devil's Island, French Guiana

Like Con Son in Vietnam, the French also founded a Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana. Established by Napoléon III in 1854, the hell hole held about 80,000 prisoners until it closed in 1938, and hard-labor tasks included make-work projects like constructing a road to nowhere. A majority of the prisoners died on the island, many from starvation and disease, but not all. Henri Charrière escaped after 14 years and wrote about the experience in his 1969 memoir Papillon, which became an Oscar-nominated movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. This Devil's Island, like French Guiana itself, is hardly a paradise, but it earned honorable mention due to its historical legacy. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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