Welcome to the tropical prison that some don’t want to leave

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File photo taken on March 16, 2019, showing a view of Islas Marias federal prison at Isla Maria Madre in the Pacific Ocean, some 120 km off the coast of Nayarit state, Mexico. (AFP / JOSE OSORIO)
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View of the entrance to Islas Marias federal prison at Isla Maria Madre in the Pacific Ocean, some 120 km off the coast of Nayarit state, Mexico, on March 16, 2019. (AFP / JOSE OSORIO)
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View of security fences of Islas Marias federal prison at Isla Maria Madre in the Pacific Ocean, some 120 km off the coast of Nayarit state, Mexico, on March 16, 2019. (AFP / JOSE OSORIO)
Updated 04 April 2019
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Welcome to the tropical prison that some don’t want to leave

ISLA MARÍA MADRE: More than a century after Mexico established a prison on the Maria Islands — a Pacific archipelago eight hours by boat from the mainland — the country’s new government has decided to close it.
But some prisoners didn’t want to leave the tropical jail.
The inmates and guards on the islands — the Islas Marias, as they are known in Spanish — stayed put even when powerful Hurricane Willa swept over them in October 2018.
But they could do nothing to withstand the force of nature that is Mexican politics.
In February, newly installed leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador decided to close the prison, saying the islands — known for their beauty and biodiversity — should not be a testament to “punishment, torture and repression.”
The jail, established in 1905, will now become the Jose Revueltas cultural center, named for a Mexican writer and political activist who was imprisoned here twice in the 1930s.
Situated on Isla Maria Madre, the largest island in the archipelago, the prison has held around 64,000 inmates throughout its history. Last month, the last 584 of them were sent back to the mainland.
Low-risk inmates who were close to finishing their sentences were freed. The rest were sent to another prison in the arid, land-locked northern state of Coahuila.
The change was not necessarily welcome.
Most prisoners lived in semi-captivity on the island, free to roam about in the balmy weather beneath its tropical palm trees. Some even lived with their families.
“It’s a drastic change for some of them. Here, they were used to living in semi-captivity,” said prison guard Jose Becerra when AFP visited the island.
“They were calmly serving their time, living happily with their families. The change took them by surprise, and they were definitely sad to leave.”

Home to low-risk inmates
Isla Maria Madre sits 130 kilometers (80 miles) off the mainland, a far-flung island surrounded by calm, turquoise waters and inhabited by pelicans, parrots and iguanas.
The prison consists of a series of cement houses where low-risk inmates lived, eight to a house, with cement beds and door-less bathrooms. Outside, they had access to an open-air gym, a garden, a woodworking shop and music classes.
The maximum-security building has more traditional cells, with steel bars, two beds per cell, a toilet and a small space to sit. It held 137 inmates before it closed — around one-fourth its capacity.
Today, the prison looks almost like a ghost town, its streets empty except for the occasional golf cart driven by the remaining guards who have yet to be transferred to the mainland.
It still bears the scars of Hurricane Willa: uprooted palm trees, roofless buildings and barbed wire strewn about. The inmates, who were tasked with clean-up after the storm, did not have time to finish the job.
The guards continue raising and lowering the Mexican flag over the prison each day, but have little to do in between.
“It’s not easy to give up living in paradise. It’s always hard to reintegrate into society,” said Ricardo Ramirez, head of the civil protection service for the islands.

Biosphere reserve
In 2010, UNESCO declared the islands a biosphere reserve, the UN agency’s designation for specially protected, biodiverse regions.
The rich array of wildlife on and around the islands includes their famous sharks — the main impediment facing would-be fugitives.
Few prisoners attempted to escape over the years. The ones who did often ended up roaming the island — which measures 20 kilometers long by 10 kilometers wide — hunting small animals for food, until they were recaptured.
“As you can see, the (prisoners’) houses don’t have bars. They were allowed to walk around during authorized hours, go for a run, play basketball or football, watch TV, come to the workshop,” said Gregorio Lopez, security chief for one of the prison’s sectors.
Not all considered it a tropical paradise, though. In 2013, around 650 prisoners rioted in the maximum-security sector, demanding better food and medical treatment. Around 30 people were wounded.
Once a week, a boat ferries guards and supplies to the port of Mazatlan on the mainland, a trip that takes seven to 12 hours.
Soon it will ferry the last guards back to shore, and the Maria Islands will begin a new chapter.


Women's temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

Updated 31 min 11 sec ago
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Women's temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

  • Indian Supreme Court ruled the ban on women from entering a Hindu temple as unconstitutional
  • Two of the three candidates for presidency support the ban

PATHANAMTHITTA, India: Voters in a flashpoint constituency in southern India went to the polls Tuesday after a campaign dominated by the fallout from the controversial decision to allow women to enter a Hindu temple.
The district of Pathanamthitta in the state of Kerala includes the Sabarimala Hindu temple, where two women finally defied a longstanding ban on women of menstruating age last year.
Traditionalists were outraged and many women remain divided over the move, which has overshadowed the campaign with candidates staging election parades on the issue.
Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini made history in December when police guided them into the hilltop shrine, after the Supreme Court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional.
Days of pitched battles erupted between traditionalists and activists. The anger has not died down and core issues such as unemployment, health and education have been pushed aside during the campaign.
The whole country is expected to follow the result when it is announced on May 23 after India’s marathon election.
Two of the three main candidates in the election are men who support the ban, while the third is a woman who has tried to dodge the topic.
Veena George, who is standing for the alliance of left wing parties that runs Kerala’s state government cited an election commission advisory to avoid using the temple to get votes.
“We need a revival of job opportunities, agriculture and infrastructure. Educated women need jobs,” she told AFP on the last day of campaigning before Tuesday’s vote.
India’s main opposition Congress party has fielded Anto Antony, who won the last two elections and has backed the traditionalists.
The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brandished its pro-Hindu credentials as it seeks to make an impact in a state where it has always struggled.
The BJP has fielded K. Surendran, who became the symbol of the massive temple protests across Kerala. He now faces more than 200 police cases related to violence during last year’s Sabarimala protests.
“The Communists have an issue with our prayers and religion but they can’t crush believers’ rights,” Modi told a rally in Kerala last week.
“We won’t tolerate any attack on a tradition that has lasted thousands of years,” Modi added to wild cheers.
Many women have backed the traditionalist cause.
“Local men and women agree. There is only one issue in this election — our faith. And the court shouldn’t have intervened,” Lakshmi, who works at a local hospital, and only uses one name, told AFP.
“I feel hurt as a Hindu when I see things going against our culture and tradition,” added Bindhu, a housewife.
“The temple has always been a place where women could not go. It is not acceptable to see people coming and fighting to enter now,” she added.
Tens of thousands of people, including many women, took part in street marches and protests in support of the ban.
However, uncertainty remains over how many women will vote for their right to enter Sabarimala.
“Women should be free to choose whether to enter or not. To me, women’s safety, here and all over India, is the only issue that is important,” said Ansa S., a medical student.