Marías Island Penal Colony: A Prison with Walls of Water
“These are neither tombs nor hells,
rather tropical lands with luxurious vegetation,”
someone said of these islands.
They may not be tombs, but they are a prison—
the most humane prison in the world—
aimed at rehabilitating, not punishing.
Francisco Ornelas, sj
Las Marías Archipelago, off Mexico’s Pacific coast, is home to a singular prison. Nearly 29,000 prisoners have passed through it during its hundred years in existence. At one point, over 5,000 inmates lived here with their families. This is one of the things that make it unique: its capacity. Counting employees, up to 10,000 people have lived here at a time. At the beginning of 2004, however, there were only 200 common and 779 federal prisoners. There’s room for many more....
Someone who participated in an international conference on prison pastoral work held in Russia told me that this prison is considered one of a kind, since it’s the only penal colony that offers real opportunities for social rehabilitation, through its very structure. It’s the only one that truly places the emphasis on rehabilitation, not punishment.
I’ve been the prison chaplain for nearly a year. Soon after arriving, I visited all the camps of those held on the María Madre Island, which covers some 140 square kilometers. From the camps located on the southernmost point of the island one can see María Magdalena Island, which covers some 84 square kilometers. It’s so close you could almost touch it. When the weather’s clear you can also make out the outline of the small María Cleofás Island, a bit farther south, which is less than 30 square kilometers. Prisoners once lived on María Magdalena as well, but for the last 20 years they have all been on María Madre, the largest of the archipelago’s four islands. It is rumored—and rumors are a profession here—that people who were disappeared are buried on the other three islands, which are now deserted but for the visits of illegal fishermen and drug traffickers.
Mexico ranks third In December 2003, the Justice Department’s Professional Training Institute in Mexico City, which graduates 300 police officers each year, published a study titled “Penitentiary Population: How Mexico and Mexico City Rank in the World.” The 17-page study was commissioned by the institute’s director, José Luis Pérez Canchola, and includes illustrations, charts and a brief but conclusive text.
in number of prisoners
The study summarizes information on the nearly nine million prisoners in the world today. Among countries with over 100 million inhabitants, Mexico ranks third for the number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, just behind—who else?—the United States in first place and Russia in second, with nearly 3 million prisoners between them. In the United States there are 701 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, in Russia, 606. In contrast, Brazil has 140, and China 117. India, with its much larger population, has 304,000 prisoners but only 29 for every 100,000. Mexico has 162,372, giving a total of 155 per 100,000 inhabitants. During Ernesto Zedillo’s government, Mexico’s prison population grew 10% a year. That rate has fallen a bit under Fox, to 7.5% a year. According to the report, the Islas Marías prison contains 0.14% of the world’s total prison population.
More crimes, more prisoners?The report discusses different approaches to the problems posed by crime and imprisonment. “One possible way to reduce the cycle of more crimes, harsher penal laws and more prisoners is the approach used by the government of Mexico City, in which the state intervenes in an effort to guarantee social justice and promote economic growth and job creation. This strategy is more social than penal, and aims in the medium and long term to reduce the crime rate and stabilize the number of prisoners.
“At the other extreme is the example of the United States, which in the early 1990s shifted its efforts away from social programs aimed at vulnerable populations and focused instead on bringing about radical reforms in its penal system. As a result, by 2003 it had the greatest number of prisoners in its whole history: 2,033,000 in federal, state and local prisons, or 23% of the world’s prison population. Some 523,000 people work at the various levels of the penitentiary system. Only General Motors employs more people.
“Most of the studies on this issue indicate that the crime rate does not in and of itself explain the growing number of prisoners at a global or national level... Governments apparently prefer to respond with emergency actions, promoting stricter laws as a way of addressing the loss of confidence in their justice systems and the growing feeling of insecurity among their populations.... A policy of imprisoning more people with longer sentences might reassure a society alarmed by the lack of security, but has little to do with the causes of crime and violence.”
The report concludes, “Given the unjust distribution of wealth, what is called for is a redistribution of public income, based on savings in the government’s operating expenses and an honest management of public finances... This democratic, humane action would attack the underlying cause of marginalization: the unjust distribution of wealth.”
Isle of cats: A biospheric reserveIf London boasts an Isle of Dogs, then María Madre could be called the isle of cats. There are only two dogs here—the ones charged with sniffing bags in search of drugs—but there are all the cats in the world, running through the camps and the brush. Will they end up returning to the wild? There are also a lot of donkeys. The island once exported 300 of them, supposedly to feed the carnivores in the country’s zoos. And there are semi-wild horses readily given, they say, to anyone who asks for them... and can tame them. There are also wild goats in the hills. There are a few flat plains where people used to grow agave plants for henequen and still grow sorghum and hibiscus, but most of the island is covered by hills of up to 600 meters in altitude.
From the start, it was understood that the families of the prisoners would be living here with them as an essential condition for their rehabilitation. The inmates live not in cells but rather in government-built houses, which until a few months ago were grouped together in eleven “camps.”
Unfortunately, poor administration and corruption, in addition to our geographic location—on the drug traffickers’ maritime route—have undermined the quality of this model prison, making changes inevitable. In one of its last acts, President Zedillo’s government declared the islands a “natural protected area, with the character of a biosphere reserve.” This was understood to mean that they would no longer serve as a prison, but after four years of uncertainty, top officials from the Public Safety Ministry recently made a lightning visit to the island and announced the decision to “reinitiate the federal penal colony project, which does not contradict the islands’ ecological preservation; on the contrary, the inmates will help preserve the site.”
A costly investmentClosing the penal colony would mean losing not only the global recognition it has brought Mexico, but also almost a century’s worth of investments. The costly infrastructure includes housing for 5,000 inmates; cafeterias; a hospital staffed with six doctors and five nurses that offers free services to all; workshops; schools; sports fields, processing facilities for salt, lime, wood, henequen and sorghum; wells and water tanks; the electricity grid and antennas.
Of the 1,329 inmates—including 50 women—who were on the island when I first arrived as chaplain in September 2003, only 560 are left today, including just 18 women. The total population including family members and prison staff amounts to barely 900 now. And that number could soon be reduced by another 200, since many of the inmates are about to complete their sentences and others are expecting early parole. For this reason, five of the camps were closed in June and the inmates relocated to a four-kilometer area between the dock and the landing strip.
A privileged cageThe Mexican government first began to talk about establishing a prison here in 1857. It was the dictator Porfirio Díaz who finally allocated the four islands’ 273 square kilometers for a federal penitentiary in 1905. The prison began to operate in 1908 and was used especially for political prisoners—the striking workers of Río Blanco and Cananea—as well as prisoners of the 1910 revolution, the Guerra Cristera in the 1920s and the protests of the 1930s.
Some of this prison’s unique conditions were present from the start, which is surprising given the dictator’s hatred of the striking workers who inaugurated it. Other features were established over time: the striped uniforms were done away with and inmates were allowed to move freely over the whole island (normally with official permission), climb its hills, fish, hunt and collect materials to make the crafts they sell to visitors—deciding how to use their time on their own, outside of the two or three hours they had to dedicate to prison work each day.
I read Julio Sherer García’s 133-page interview done six years ago with Dr. Carlos Tornero, the government commissioner for social rehabilitation centers, which Alfaguara published as a book titled Cárceles (“Prisons”). “I hate prisons,” said the person responsible for running them; “they’re institutions that contradict nature. They’re crushing. I call them what they are: cages. And cages are for animals. It pains me to see them. The prisoners are victims of their own crimes and victimized by a society that sees punishment as purification. It’s society that establishes categories: the good and the bad. And bad, perverse, we can all be that.”
While a gilded cage is no less a cage, there is an undeniable and unanimous feeling in this prison that despite the material limitations and the distance from “normal life on the mainland,” it’s a relief to be here rather than in any other Mexican or foreign prison—and there are a few prisoners here from Central America, South America and the United States.
“Neither tombs nor hells”In August, a group of people from the state of Guerrero visited the islands, brought by the special prosecutor for social and political movements of the past, who was recently named to investigate political crimes committed by previous governments. They came in search of victims of one of the many “dirty wars” in our recent history, hoping to find members of the rural and urban guerrilla movements who had been “disappeared” in the 1970s. Their search came to naught, however.
Up until 1970, the army was responsible for prison security. Since then it has been in the hands of the navy, which sends groups of 40 sailors here for monthly stays. They are the only people who carry arms on the island. The 50 or so “custodians”—responsible for keeping order and supervising prison work—carry only billy clubs.
The Mexican Social Security Institute is responsible for the health of the island’s inhabitants. The hospital is very well built and equipped to offer quality services, which of course are free. Cases that cannot be treated here are referred to a hospital on the nearby coast. The education programs for children and adults are also free, paid for by the government.
The most exhausting work—in the blinding lime mines and salt fields, the quarries where stone blocks for construction were chiseled out of the rock and the fields where agave and sorghum were grown—are now things of the past.
José Revueltas, a famous novelist who was a political prisoner here in 1930, wrote Los muros de agua (“The Walls of Water”). There are no others, except in the jail where those who commit crimes on the island, get drunk or into fights, may be kept for up to a few months. Miguel Gil titled the account of his 1931 visit La tumba del Pacífico (“The Tomb of the Pacific”), a motif also picked up by Carlos H. de la Peña, a writer from Sinaloa, who wrote Nosotros los muertos (“We the Dead”) after visiting the prison in 1949. Antonio Marcué R. described his “lost years in the Marías Islands” in 1973 in Un infierno en el Pacífico (“A Hell in the Pacific”), challenging what Djed Bórquez had said of the islands back in 1937: “They are neither tombs nor hells: they are tropical lands with luxurious vegetation, hills covered with precious wood and medicinal plants.”
Jesuits: Part of the landscapeMexican Jesuits have served as chaplains in the Marías Island Penal Colony since 1943 and are now part of the scenery. In the past 60 years, some 100 Jesuits have been on the islands: students, brothers and priests who at some point in their training have been sent or have asked to come to support those assigned here, to offer a course or fill in so those who work here can visit the mainland. They have sometimes brought groups of students who live with the inmates, sharing the penitentiary work and the prison food.
The first chaplain was Samuel Ginori (1943-53). He was followed by Juan Manuel Martínez Macías, better known as “Father Tricks” because he was so good at playing them. He served for 37 years and is the only chaplain buried here, alongside the grave of “El Sapo” (The Toad), a famous assassin who once planned to kill the chaplain but was won over by his amiability. Ramón J. Torres, now in his 90s, served some 22 years, until his notoriously good health began to bother the prison director. In 1989 he and a small group of interns and another, smaller group of benefactors decided to build a stature of Christ on a 300-meter-high hill; it’s nearly finished now. The government has occasionally turned to the chaplains to recruit volunteers from the country’s other prisons to come here.
They want to be heardAs chaplain, my duty is mainly to accompany people. I say a lot, but they say more: they’re anxious to be heard. When they tell me a story, it’s like they’re seeing it for the first time through someone else’s eyes, though they have undoubtedly told it to themselves many times. All you have to do is give them your undivided attention, and they do the rest. There isn’t an inkling of cynicism or ostentation in their words, only a need to speak about these stages in their lives, not as a statement prepared for the police or a judge, but rather something shared naturally, in trust, the way other people speak about having seen a movie or read a book.
They tell me things like this: “Can you imagine, Father? A foreigner telling me to get off the beach because it’s his private property! I had to kill him. I only meant to get him, but as luck would have it, his wife came out to see what was going on and I was so drugged up I killed her too.”
The stories are incredible. In April an inmate named Henry Mendoza was released. He has a gifted voice and can play all kinds of instruments. He once organized choirs in several parishes in Chicago, but he doesn’t even want to pass through there now, since the members of his old gang would get him into trouble if he agreed to join them or if he refused. He’s leaving here determined not to re-offend. He’s thinking of spending some time in Guadalajara, and has already gotten a job lined up with a mariachi band in Cincinnati.
In and out, out and inAnother former inmate, Roberto Palomera, is now in Morelos jail. I went to see him there. Last June they examined him and ordered a psychiatric evaluation, but since they haven’t brought a specialist to conduct the evaluation, he hasn’t been released. A hundred other federal prisoners are in a similar situation. Some were arrested carrying over a thousand kilos of marijuana. “I was carrying 1,800 kilos when they got me, worth two million dollars on the street,” “the Trailer,” a large, loud man, told me. What Palomera said makes sense to him: people who transport over a thousand kilos need stronger characters, great potential. I keep asking and learn that some people were carrying as much as 20 tons of marijuana when they were arrested.
Leonardo, a Jesuit colleague from Uruguay who came to finish his studies in Mexico, tells me with consternation that many of them are “resigned” to a life of crime given the lack of alternatives,. They’ve gotten out of jail with the best of intentions in the past and at first refused to get involved, but... As one of the men explained to Leonardo, “They’ll tell you, ‘Well, here’s a little present to help you make up your mind,’ as they slip you some $100 bills, just to give you a taste of it. No one can resist that, Father.”
Sergio: “I learned”Sister Martha tells me about Sergio, who came in at the age of 14. What, at 14? “The authorities don’t care: when they want to lock you up, they lock you up.” Even minors. Sergio’s mother had left him with his father so she could go take care of his grandmother in the United States. But the father died two years later and Sergio was taken in by a gang that trained him to perfection. When he was thirteen—and already seemed much older—he shot and killed a bus driver in Mexico City who refused to let him on the bus, given the state he was in. As the driver closed the door, Sergio shot and killed him.
He then announced to the panicked passengers that he wouldn’t hurt anyone; it was just that he was in a hurry to get out of the neighborhood. He drove the bus himself for ten minutes and then, when he saw the chance to slip away, stopped the bus and disappeared into the crowd. He was arrested soon after and brought to this prison, not for the homicide, which the authorities didn’t attribute to him, but rather for assault. He says he made a note of when guards were paid and then robbed them. He killed cows and sold the meat to buy drugs. His sentences kept piling up, and he’s now been in prison for 21 years. Sergio feels that he’s changed a lot and has his head on straight now, and when he completes his sentence in seven months he’s going to go look for his mother in the United States. He says he has learned to go straight.
The future former prisonerBrother Juan Gómez Vergara, who has been working here for over 14 years, runs a machinery and tool school under the authority of the Public School System of Mazatlán. It is located on the nearest coast, some 110 kilometers from the island. Twelve generations of prisoners have passed through the school. José Luis Gómez Gallegos, who served as chaplain from 1988 to 1994, managed to equip and run a computer school that will soon be taken on by the government and from which several hundred people have already graduated.
In our efforts to accompany a population now focused on getting out, we’ve been putting together a small bulletin for those who get early parole. It’s called “The Former Prisoner of Balleto,” which is the name of the island’s main town. Several computer experts help put the bulletin together. The publication’s subtitle is “Echoes of a Window Slamming” and it includes sections like “From the Iguanas’ Mouth,” “The Latest from the Sorghum Fields” and “True Rumors,” all allusions to local slang. We’re about to open an interactive web page offering job vacancies and the chance for former prisoners to exchange news. When the weekly paroles were interrupted, we published “The Future Ex-Prisoner,” with thoughts about the serious problems awaiting them when they leave. Not the least of these is the possibility of being killed in a settling of accounts by a victim’s relatives or by a gang they refuse to rejoin. We also discuss the new family situation they may find, when their wives and children have had to get by for years without their husband and father or when the wife has finally made a new life with someone else. This is not always the case, of course. Indeed, it is moving to see the loyal, resolute love of a good number of wives who choose to come live on the island with their children for years to accompany their husbands.
Even literature workshopsSince only 20% of the population participates in religious events, the other kinds of support we offer them are important: legal advice, information on human rights, help writing petitions requesting a review of their sentences or protesting the violation of their rights, consultations with lawyers and psychologists, or even such simple things as making phone calls for them or getting them reading glasses.
Some services are a bit unusual, like a workshop we had in May. Two women writers overcame the worst bureaucratic obstacles to come to the island and offer an all-day workshop on literature of the highest quality to some thirty enthusiastic participants. The inmates couldn’t believe the professional level and dedication with which these women shared their singular knowledge. There are so many stories here that the workshop uncovered several budding Paulos Coelhos, the novelist who was imprisoned three times and committed to asylums before publishing the books that made him famous, with 30 million copies in circulation.
The course of lifeLife on the island continues its yearly course. The dry heat reaches a peak before July, when there are sometimes a few weeks of rain. Around that time, the branches of the mango trees are laden with fruit on the verge of changing from monotone green to the technicolor of the ripe fruit. Tiny hummingbirds use their advanced autogyro technology to taste everything. The canaries, larks and cardinals, sensing the coming of the rain, brighten the dry, gray thickets. They no longer flock down to peck the crumbs the prisoners share with them. They are busy building their great meteorological nests, suspended by strands whose length depends on the winds they will have to resist. These nests are signs: if they’re right up against the branch, a hurricane is on the way.
The donkeys continue devastating the landscape, without respecting any schedule, the dolts, convinced that they are part of the island’s defining character. The pelicans hold onto their fishing title, despite fierce competition from the inmates, thanks to the advantage of their aerial position. And the makings of iguana or lobster soup, breaded snails or clams are all readily found. Would you like some?
Francisco Ormeñas, sj, is an envío contributor from the Marías Islands.