An Island Prison Colony Might Return in the West

Honduras plans to build what would be the only active such facility
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 19, 2023 11:23 AM CDT
Honduras Is Plotting an Unusual Island Prison Colony
This image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows Great Swan Island or the Islas del Cisne in Honduras, on July 13, 2023. Honduras says it will build a maximum security prison on this tiny island off its Caribbean coast to contain the leaders of the country’s most fearsome gangs.   (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Honduras plans to build the only island prison colony in the Western Hemisphere and send its most-feared gangsters there, reports the AP. Honduras' progressive president once promised to address gang violence through systemic reforms to governance and the criminal justice system. Now, President Xiomara Castro plans to build an isolated prison for 2,000 gang leaders on the Islas del Cisne archipelago that sits 155 miles off the coast, part of a larger crackdown following the gang-related massacre of 46 women in one prison.

The only way to communicate with the Islas del Cisne is by satellite, José Jorge Fortín, the head of Honduras' armed forces, said in an interview with the AP. Officials hope that will prevent gang leaders from running their operations from inside the prisons. Escape would be difficult as the island takes about a day to reach by boat from the mainland. "The idea is that they lose contact with everything, contact with all of society ... and they can really pay for their crimes," Fortín said. He did not specify the cost of the project or when officials expect it to be done, but said Castro ordered the facility be built as quickly as possible.

Island prisons once were common across Latin America, with facilities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and Peru. Deadly riots, brutal conditions, and bold prison escapes captured filmmakers' and authors' imaginations before the last island prison closed in Mexico in 2019. In Honduras, authorities are betting that a return to the past will help stem the wave of violence, but skeptics say such moves are little more than optics, and fail to address the root causes of endemic violence.

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"A new prison is quite useless if you don't first regain control of the others you already have," said Tiziano Breda, a Latin America expert at Italy's Instituto Affari Internazionali. "Criminal gangs have shown throughout their history that they can adapt." Meanwhile, regional biologists worry the project will come at the expense of the island's highly biodiverse ecosystems at a time when the Caribbean is already being ravaged by the effects of climate change. Largely uninhabited, the prison site has been designated as an environmentally protected territory for more than three decades.

(More Honduras stories.)

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