Devil's Island is a small rocky islet in the Atlantic Ocean just off the northern coast of French Guiana whose name is synonymous with a desolate, inescapable and horrific prison. First opened by Emperor Napoleon III, Devil's Island would become one of the most famous prisons in history. In addition to the prison on the island, prison facilities were located on the mainland at Kourou. Over time, they became known collectively as "Devil's Island".
Used by France from 1852 to 1946, its residents were everything from political prisoners to the most hardened of thieves and murderers. A great many of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the harsh conditions at disease-infested Devil’s Island were never seen again. Other than by boat, the only way out was through an impenetrable jungle; accordingly, very few convicts ever managed to escape.
The horrors of the penal settlement became notorious in 1895 with the publicity surrounding the plight of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus who was sent there.
Several movies, songs, a stage play, as well as a number of books feature Devil's Island. The most famous was a 1970 bestselling book by an ex-Devil's Island convict named Henri Charrière published under the title Papillon. The book told of his numerous escape attempts and in 1973 it was made into a movie starring Steve McQueen.
Before the bestseller Papillon, Rene Belbenoit's book, titled 'Dry Guillotine' published in 1938 was instrumental in exposing the prison colony of Devils Island.
In 1938 the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil’s Island, and in 1946 the prison closed permanently.