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Last Island Penal Colony in the Americas Is Closing

Mexico's Islas Marias will become a cultural center
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 19, 2019 4:45 AM CST
In this May 12, 2005 photo, inmate Francisco Loera walks with his bass while embracing his partner Alicia Anchondo, who arrived to visit him at the Islas Marias federal prison island.   (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
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(Newser) – Mexico is closing its infamous Isla Marias prison, the last island penal colony in a hemisphere once dotted with remote island jails like the one depicted in the movie Papillon. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday that Mexico will relocate about two-thirds of the 659 remaining inmates and free about 200 others from the islands, 70 miles off the Pacific coast of Nayarit. The four islands—only one of which is inhabited—will be turned into a cultural and environmental education center, the AP reports. The prison, founded in 1905 on Maria Madre, passed through periods of infamous brutality. When Panama closed its Isla Coiba penal colony in 2004, Isla Marias became the last one remaining in the Americas.

Lopez Obrador said the new cultural center will be named after Jose Revueltas, a novelist who was imprisoned there and wrote the novel Walls of Water. "It is the history... of repression for more than a century," Lopez Obrador said of the prison, which as recently as 2013 held 8,000 inmates. While the prison kept mass tourism at bay, the islands suffered severe environmental degradation from over a century of use as a penal colony, says Ramon Ojeda Mestre, who served from 2000 to 2004 as head of the environmental recovery program for the islands. The 12-hour boat rides that relatives had to endure in order to visit inmates was "cruel," Ojeda Mestre says, calling the decision to close the prison "an extraordinary piece of news that should be celebrated throughout the Americas."

(Read more Mexico stories.)

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