Thursday, February 29, 2024

The prison that helped build ‘the city at the end of the world’

Some call this prison the Alcatraz of Argentina. Its inmates helped build what is now known as the city at the end of the world.

Sent here in the early 1900s to populate the southern tip of the country, they paved roads and heated homes with wood they transported by train from nearby forests. Ushuaia’s frigid climate and remote location meant that if inmates managed to escape the prison grounds, they rarely got far.

Nestled along the Beagle Channel, with snow-capped mountains behind it, Ushuaia has become a major port city of 80,000 people and a hub for ecotourism. Ships regularly depart for Antarctica.

The prison has been transformed into a museum and a “dark tourism” attraction – like Chernobyl – which reminds us that Ushuaia owes much of its existence to the work of the prisoners.

Visitors wander through the long cell blocks of the Ushuaia prison, now transformed into a museum.

(Leila Miller/Los Angeles Times)

Gift shops tout a seemingly endless supply of prison-themed souvenirs, including baby onesies and oven mitts emblazoned with the iconic prison uniform pattern – yellow and blue horizontal stripes. The End of the World Train, which runs through Tierra del Fuego National Park, simulates the forest journey that the prisoners took every day and invites passengers to discover “the charm of a bygone era.”

This kitsch nature fuels a debate over whether the commodification of “dark tourism” is in bad taste or whether it makes the story more accessible. Ryan C. Edwards, author of “A Carceral Ecology,” which examines the Ushuaia prison and its legacy, said people should not forget Ushuaia’s past.

“It’s very funny to ride the train, hear stories, be gloomy about it, and then be happy on a hike through the mountains,” he said.

But Ushuaia’s history as a city and prison poses a tricky question.

“One is because of the other,” Edwards said, “and are we OK with that?”

When Argentina created a sub-prefecture in Tierra del Fuego in 1884, following a treaty with Chile that shared the territory between the two countries, the region was populated by natives and English missionaries.

Argentine officials, including President Julio Roca, viewed the prison as a way to obtain a reliable source of labor and to occupy the territory to defend it against Chile. They cited penal colonies around the world, including the British colony in Australia, as models.

The name Ushuaia, pronounced oo-SWY-yah, comes from the indigenous Yaghan language and means “the bay that looks west.”

A group of prisoners who had been promised reduced sentences volunteered to be transferred to Ushuaia to build a prison for civilians, according to Edwards. In 1902, the first stone was laid within sight of the banks of the Beagle Channel.


Historical archive photo of Ushuaia Prison.


A crowded open area full of inmates.


Historical archive photo of Ushuaia Prison.

1. Successful prison escapes were rare in Ushuaia due to its frigid climate and remoteness. 2. In the prison rotunda. Prisoners often lived in overcrowded conditions. 3. An exterior view of Ushuaia Prison. (Courtesy of the End of the World Museum – Ushuaia)

The design of the prison, five long cell blocks that meet in a rotunda like the spokes of a wheel, was inspired by the famous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Some supporters believed that Patagonia’s physical labor, nature, and cold climate could help the prisoners’ rehabilitation.

“It is believed that cold and icy areas will temper criminal habits,” Edwards said. “You get a very scientific penitentiary in a very cold area that they believe is sanitary.”

The penitentiary expanded to 380 cells while housing more than 500 prisoners at a time and suffered from overcrowding. The prison had a bakery, a mechanic, a sewing shop, a newspaper, and a sawmill, and the prisoners handled the town’s construction projects. It also operated a power plant that produced electricity for the city, which experienced power outages when the prison, under the jurisdiction of the country’s Justice Ministry, cut off electricity during disputes with local authorities.

“The city has become completely dependent on the prison,” said Silvana Mabel Cecarelli, an Argentine historian who has written several books about the prison. “They wanted a cradle, they had to buy it from the prisoners. »

The escaping prisoners were not expected to survive. Some went into the wilderness only to start fires in hopes of being spotted and rescued.

The prison held famous criminals, including serial killer Cayetano Santos Godino, who was accused as a teenager of strangling children. At a time when biological traits were studied as indicators of criminal behavior, Godino became known to the public for his large ears and nicknamed him the petiso orejudo“the little man with the big ears”.

A black and white photo of inmates lined up.

File photo of prisoners wearing striped uniforms.

(Courtesy of the End of the World Museum – Ushuaia)

The case of Simón Radowitzky, an anarchist transferred to Ushuaia in 1911 after assassinating the Buenos Aires police chief following violent clashes between police and labor protesters, brought the prison into the media spotlight and sparked demands for its closure.

Journalists who came to the site wrote about the illness and the lack of heating. A Buenos Aires newspaper reporter who secretly interviewed prisoners while they worked outside wrote that “Ushuaia, the cursed land, is a loathsome stain on the Republic.”

“It was like leaving them in oblivion,” Cecarelli said. “The region gained a reputation as a place of punishment; this is why it was called “Criolla Siberia”, Argentine Siberia.

As the number of prisoners and prison workers increased, the population of Tierra del Fuego increased from 477 in 1895 to 2,504 in 1914.

Families in Ushuaia have adapted to the environment, warming their beds with heated bricks and spending their free time skating in the street, climbing a nearby glacier, and hiking in the forest. News from Buenos Aires and the rest of the world came in by radio, and canned goods and supplies arrived on cargo ships in port.

Mar Tita Garea, 84, a resident of Ushuaia and known as one of its “former settlers,” recalled that her father, who worked in the prison sewing workshop when she was a child, brought home every day fresh bread from the prison bakery. .

Mar Tita Garea stands in front of framed photographs.

Mar Tita Garea, 84, is one of the “old settlers” of Ushuaia. His father worked as a tailor at the prison.

(Leila Miller/Los Angeles Times)

“It was delicious, even tastier than what my mom used to make,” she said.

Garea occasionally heard the prison orchestra, which performed for the public on public holidays, but he became concerned when news of a prisoner’s escape spread through the city.

“People were scared, or at least I was scared,” she said.

A statue of an inmate in prison clothing sits on a bench next to tourists.

Tourists sit next to a prisoner mannequin inside the prison museum.

(Leila Miller/Los Angeles Times)

Another resident, Rúben Muñoz, 85, whose uncle was a prison guard, remembers gathering every evening with other children from the town to watch the train bringing prisoners back from the wood collection pass by. a main street.

“There was no television, there were no movies, so it was kind of entertainment,” he said.

In 1947, President Juan Perón announced the prison’s closure following national reforms that created rural, labor-oriented prisons throughout Argentina to support the development of agricultural communities.

Ushuaia, even without its prison, continued to grow. In the 1970s, tourism in Antarctica, a two-day boat ride away, exploded. Tax exemptions created in Tierra del Fuego to attract people to the province led to the development of a manufacturing hub that today produces almost all of Argentina’s cell phones and televisions.

Nowadays, tourism is one of the city’s lifelines. In summer, visitors flock to the narrow streets of the city center where agencies offer penguin tours and last-minute trips to Antarctica and souvenir shops sell mugs and shirts that say “end of the world “.

A post office on a Patagonian coast.

The “Argentinian post office at the end of the world” in Tierra del Fuego National Park.

(Leila Miller/Los Angeles Times)

Before boarding the train to the end of the world, passengers take photos next to staff dressed in horizontal stripes to pose as prisoners. A recording tells the story of the prison in several languages ​​as the train passes through a sparkling river and valleys. The business was a success. Last year, the train carried 259,000 passengers, compared to 102,000 in 2013. Ten years earlier, it had 60,000.

A uniformed guard mannequin greets visitors at the entrance to the prison, which in the 1990s was transformed by a group of residents into a museum. The repainted cells host exhibitions, and two cell blocks house an art gallery and gift shop.

Tourists take photos with a prisoner figurine sitting at a cafe table inside the rotunda. Rolando Bianco, a Buenos Aires businessman, posed for a photo with a diploma from the gift shop declaring visitors “free.”

“Something humorous,” he said. “You have to take life like that.”

Many residents are happy with the revival of the economy. Ana María Calderon, whose father was an orphan in Buenos Aires and had never heard of Ushuaia when a church got him a job there at age 20 helping print a newspaper, said that when she grew up, the town felt very peaceful.

A man looks at archive photos.

José Enrique Cisterna, 95, looks at an old prison photo. Cisterna moved to Ushuaia at age 18 and worked on the naval base that took over the prison.

(Leila Miller/Los Angeles Times)

“Seeing the people, the boats, it gives me life,” she says.

But José Enrique Cisterna, a 95-year-old who moved to Ushuaia at age 18 and worked at the naval base that took over the prison, said it was important to remember that “the suffering of the prisoners contributed to the expansion of the city.

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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