"Le Bagne" - 2
The slightest disciplinary breach of the inmates in "Le Bagne" was punished callously. A special tribunal of officials could impose sentences going from restraint to death penalty by the guillotine. The inmate had no right to any professional defense, he could choose his advocate among his fellow inmates, the wardens or a civilian.
The first level of punishment was "L'emprisonnement", restraint, on Île-Saint-Joseph. The condemned person was confined for a period of six months up to six years in a cell during the night, in complete silence. During the day he had to work.
"La réclusion cellulaire", The solitary confinement is also organized on the Île-St-Joseph for a length of five months to five years. The convict was kept in complete isolation in cells where the ceiling was replaced by a steel grate to allow the armed guards, on permanent watch, to oversee the cells.
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Speaking or making any noise was totally prohibited, even to the guards. Breaking this rule resulted in an even more rigorous regime. Then the steel grates were covered up with wooden boards to prevent daylight to penetrate. The inmate was forced to live in total obscurity for weeks or even months.
The inmates didn't see anyone but the guards. They were not allowed to leave the cells at any time for the complete duration of their sentence, not even when ill. Once a month a small hatch in the cell door was opened. The prisoner could extend his head through the hatch to be shaven. The solitary confinement was abolished by the governor of Guyana in 1940.
As mentioned before, the most severe sentence was the guillotine, but one can wonder if this final sentence was not to be preferred above the solitary confinement. Most of the prisoners that endured the solitary
La nuit du
La guinguette
à deux sous
L' inspecteur
Prisoners in 'solitary confinement', ready to be shaven, once a month
Les larmes
de bougie
confinement left the cells physically, but especially mentally, damaged and broken for the rest of their lives.
Vente à la
La maison
du juge
One of the violations that could result in solitary confinement was attempted escape.
There are some celebrated romanticized stories about spectacular escapes from the French "bagne". Henri Charrière's "Papillon" is one of them
Mon ami
Maigret à
Restored cells on St.-Laurent
Yet, successful escapes were very exceptional because of two main reasons: the natural conditions of the colony and the people that roamed around in it.
"Le Bagne" had only three ways out, the tropical rain forest, the ocean and the Maroni river.
L'Auberge aux
The route through the forest was probably the most perilous one. The nearest border is the one with Brazil, still several hundreds of kilometers away. The main problem was orientation. The many swamps made it impossible to follow a straight route. Added to this there were the obvious dangers of a prolonged stay in a tropical rain forest, dangerous animals, disease, lack of drinkable water and food.
Practically all the escapees who chose this way were caught or surrendered to the "convict-hunters", natives paid by the authorities of "Le Bagne" to hunt down the fugitives.
Le notaire de
M.Gallet, décédé
Le charretier de
"La Providence"
Chez les
The treacherous tropical forest of Guyana and the Maroni river
Escape by the Maroni river was easier, but the French government had made an agreement with the neighboring country, a Dutch colony, that the renegades would be extradicted.

The third way, the ocean, offered more realistic escape perspectives, if the fugitives could reach the coasts of Venezuela or Brazil. Of course they needed to obtain an adequate boat. Several valiant fugitives attempted this adventure on improvised rafts. Despite all the difficulties of preparing for such a daring operation, some escapes succeeded.
For more information on localities got to the Travel Log
The forest as well as the route by the river was heavily guarded. Not so much by the camp authorities but by deportees and former convicts. They tried to intercept the renegades to extort them, rob them or even kill them for their possessions or the money they kept in a metal cylinder inserted in their intestines. In some cases they offered their services to guide them to freedom but in reality robbed them and then handed them over to the camp guards, collecting a reward.
Where did those men come from? First there were the "relégués", the expelled criminals who relished a relative freedom. Secondly the convicts that had served their sentence. After their term of imprisonment the former inmates could not go back to France. They had to stay in Guyana at least a period equal to the duration of their sentence. So, after a sentence of two years in "Le Bagne", they had to stay in the colony for another two years
If they were convicted to a sentence of 8 years or more they had to stay in Guyana for the rest of their lives.
This resulted in a mass of unemployed former criminals roaming the territory of the colony.
Art in "Le Bagne"
Prisoners on their way to labor Prisoners back in camp after an attempted escape
Paintings by: Francis Lagrange (1894-1964). Convicted in 1931 to 10 years of hard-labor for forgery.
The transport with the prison-ship "La Martinière"
A merciless monstrosity
In general the conditions in all labor camps were extremely harsh.
"Le Bagne" in Guyana had two intentions:
First of all to force out all criminals from France and secondly to populate the colony with French subjects in the same way Great Britain did with the penal colonies in Australia. In Australia it succeeded, it did not work in Guyana.
If the population of the colony was a failure, the elimination of delinquents was a success!
No other country in the world succeeded, like France, to organize a bigger liquidation of unwanted individuals through its penal system.
The greater part of the 70.000 deported inmates did not survive their sentence.
Unsanitary living conditions, diseases, parasites, pitiless work conditions, ill-treatment, the hostile tropical environment, all this contributed to the slow but certain elimination of the condemned.
Poorly clothed, poorly nourished, physically and morally exhausted the convicts were an easy pray for epidemics like yellow fever and malaria.
Leprosy and tuberculosis also took their part of casualties.
Statue in St.-Laurent-du-Maroni in rememberance of the inhuman and wrongful sufering of the inmates of "Le Bagne"
Officials in the neighboring Dutch and English colonies and in Brazil and Venezuela who could observe this merciless monstrosity were astonished and resentfully ventilated their abhorrence towards the French authorities.
In the end, in 1938, it was mainly this international indignation that would lead to the adjournment of "Le Bagne". However, convicts stayed in the colony until 1953.
In 1977 the death penalty was abolished in France.
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"Le Bagne" - 1