Weird History Staying Locked Up Was Safer Than Escaping The Prison Built On This Insanely Dangerous Island Jungle  

Lassie Smith
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Sending criminals and political troublemakers to remote islands has been a pretty normal thing throughout history - just ask Australia or Napoleon. In Central America, the former penal colony on Coiba Island was once home to some of Panama's worst criminals and most threatening political enemies. The prisons on Coiba Island housed over 3,000 prisoners between 1919 and 2003, even after the island became part of Coiba National Park in 1991.

The island itself, however, is just as dangerous as the prisons it once contained, if not far more so. Coiba Island is full of deadly animals, poisonous plants, and, if you believe the stories, the ghosts of the people who worked and died there. Let's just say we recommend you read about it, but we definitely don't recommend you visit it.

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Photo:  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

Prisoners Were Called "Los Desaparecidos" Or The Disappeared


The penal colony on Coiba Island started housing criminals and political prisoners in 1919. As Panama's most severe prison, it was home to "los desaparecidos" - the men who disappeared from society after they committed some heinous crime or made the wrong political leader mad. Some of the prisoners were awaiting trial or sentencing, but the majority of men held on Coiba Island were there for specific amounts of time - or until they died. 

During the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, prisoners sent to Coiba Island disappeared en masse, hence the name. After Noriega was ousted in 1989, the prison went back to being mainly a criminal institution.

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Photo:  Smithsonian Institution/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Guards At The Prison Would Torture Prisoners By Staging Mock Executions


The prisoners at Coiba were subjected to horrible treatment and torture. A Human Rights Watch report from 1992 indicated that prisoners were "severely and systematically abused by their jailers in 1991. Two inmates at Coiba who died in July are believed to have been victims of torture by prison officials, and more than 170 fellow inmates have complained of serious physical and psychological abuse."

When Chuck Holton visited the island in the late 1980s, he heard stories about how prisoners were subjected to both psychological and physical torture. When it came to new prisoners, "guards would take them into the jungle, blindfold them, line them up and have a mock execution. The would put guns to them, count down ‘three, two, one, fire’, intimidating them."

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Photo:  Smithsonian Institution/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Penal Colony Was Made Up Of As Many As Thirty Camps


The penal colony itself spread prisoners throughout the island, with guards residing in small fortress-like buildings on the north side of the island. Prisoners were left to live in structures made out of natural materials or in cells with no windows, furniture, or bathrooms. At its height, the camp was home to about 3,000 prisoners living in some 30 camps.

Prisoners On The Island Went Crazy From The Extreme Conditions


The cells on Coiba Island were so barren and small that the prisoners in them lost their minds. During the late 1980s, visitors to the island found a man who had been in his cell for seven months, having only been fed through a small space in his door with no other human contact. When the man was taken out of the cell, they discovered he "was living in 8 inches (20cm) of his own filth. He was rolled up in a ball, screaming and demanding to be put back inside as the sun hurt him."