Mexico is to close one of the world’s last remaining prison islands and turn it into a cultural center named after a communist writer once held there.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday signed a declaration at news conference closing the federal prison on Islas Marias, about 100km off Mexico’s Pacific coast, saying he wanted to promote “more schools and fewer prisons.”
“It’s a history of punishments, of torture, of repression over more than a century,” he said of the prison.
Of the 600 prisoners on the island, 200 are to be released, while the rest are to be relocated to prisons on the Mexican mainland.
The former prison is to be turned into a cultural center and rechristened Walls of Water: Jose Revueltas, after a book the communist writer wrote that was inspired by two periods of imprisonment on the island for political activism, which helped to make him one of its most famous former inmates.
Inmates serving long sentences lived on the islands — known as the Mexican Alcatraz — with their families.
Islas Marias appeared to be outliving its usefulness in the early 2000s and its population was reduced from approximately 8,000 inmates after a 2003 riot.
The facility found a new purpose in recent years as the country’s crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime flooded the prison system with inmates.
Despite its difficult past, professionals working in Mexico’s prison system expressed dismay with the president’s decision, saying it spoke of past problems and it did not portend nationwide change.
Islas Marias is also considered one of Mexico’s best-run and most humane correctional facilities, according to the National Human Rights Commission, in a nation where jails are often rife with corruption, control by inmates and human rights abuses.
“[It’s] closing the penitentiary that has the only efficient model of social reinsertion,” said Paola Zavala Saeb, a former director of the Mexico City Reinsertion Institute.
Lopez Obrador’s decision to close Islas Marias and his surprise visit to the islands followed a weekend tour of the western states of Sinaloa and Durango, long considered the heartland of Mexico’s illegal drugs business.
He toured the Sierra Madre mountains and on Friday last week held a rally in Badiraguato — home town of the convicted drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — where he announced plans to pull the area out of poverty by finishing construction of a highway through the sierra, opening a university and providing 20,000 permanent jobs planting pine trees.
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