Mexico will close a famed island penal colony off the country’s Pacific coast and convert it into a cultural and environmental education center, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday.
The federal prison on the largest of the Islas Marias will release about 200 of its approximately 600 inmates and the rest will be relocated to other prisons.
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 was the last one remaining in the Americas.
Lopez Obrador said the new cultural center will be named after Jose Revueltas, who was imprisoned there and wrote the novel “Walls of Water.”
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“It is the history of punishments, of torture, of repression for more than a century,” Lopez Obrador said.
He noted that the last riot there occurred in 2003 because it was over capacity. At that time there were 8,000 prisoners there, he said.
Lopez Obrador visited the island 70 miles (110 kilometers) off the coast of Nayarit state Sunday with members of his cabinet.
Environmentalists have pushed the government for years to close the prison and make the islands a nature reserve.
Being tightly controlled and undeveloped outside the prison has helped Islas Marias and other former penal colonies conserve delicate coastal ecosystems that otherwise would have given way to beach resorts or other commercial exploitation.
In 2004, it seemed to be headed toward conservation as the government closed buildings and shipped most of the prisoners back to the mainland. But suddenly officials sent over 150 more prisoners and announced a $2 million investment.
Mexico’s federal prisons now are now nowhere near capacity, making closure of the island prison more palatable.
Far removed from its dark history of hard labor and abuses, the Islas Marias became a prison for the more well-behaved inmates, who enjoyed more freedom than at a regular prison. Some were even allowed to live with their families on the island.