Ruined and strangely beautiful, the island prison of Coiba was once a truly ugly place. This concrete extrusion from the Central American jungle is now a silent guardian of Panama's dark secrets.
The prison was established in 1919, a safe distance from the mainland, and virtually inescapable for inmates. During the back-to-back military regimes of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega (1969 to 1990), the site transformed into a penal colony for political subversives. Here, prisoners—known as Los Desaparacidos, or "the Disappeared"—were held in secret, never to return. Reports of abuse, torture, and politically motivated murder soon surfaced from this time in the island's history.
Even this, however, seems to pale before the horror of Devil's Island in French Guiyana, closed in 1953.
Devil's Island and associated prisons eventually became one of the most infamous prison systems in history. While the prison system was in use (1852–1953), inmates included political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III's coup d'état in 1851) and the most hardened of thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the Devil's Island prison system never made it back to France. Many died due to disease and harsh conditions. Sanitary systems were limited, and the region was mosquito-infested, with endemic tropical diseases. The only exit from the island prisons was by water, and few convicts escaped.
Not all prison islands were nightmares—the British kept Napoleon in relative comfort, though somewhat less so after his first escape—but history favors them as a safe place to store the most dangerous among us. And some, like Alcatraz, have become legends far in excess of the brutal mundanity of their inhabitants' lives.
The public never wanted to know that real Alcatraz. Even today after the prison has been closed for so many decades, the public just won't let go of the myths —Philip Bergen, former captain of the guards