Louis XIV, keeper of France’s infamous prisons, would have understood Guantanamo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Prisons have always struck fear in people’s hearts. From the dawn of history they have been used to lock human beings away who have either been anti-social or run afoul of somebody’s politics.

Next to torture and taking someone’s life, incarceration is the severest penalty society has for miscreants and dissenters. Prisons carry symbolic freight, and sometimes their frightful reputations outweigh their utility to state power.

The best example of this was the Bastille, originally begun as a fortress guarding the eastern approaches to Paris in 1369. By the next century it had become a prison for aristocrats and princes, political prisoners who defied, or might defy, whoever was king at the moment.

In this it was not unlike the Tower of London across the channel. But as the kings of England grew less powerful, with the rights of barons and parliaments rising to provide checks on the divine right of kings, the monarchy in France became ever more absolute.

People could be thrown into the Bastille on a royal whim, by a “lettre de cachet” that could be kept secret. As prisons go it was by no means the worst in terms of conditions. But it became a symbol of despotism and the arbitrary application of police powers. Louis XIV threw people in the Bastille for nothing more than disagreeing with him.

Voltaire, who did time in the Bastille, called it the “palace of revenge.” By Louis XVI’s time the prison was falling into disuse and there was talk of tearing it down. There were only seven prisoners remaining when a mob broke in on July 14, 1789, looking for gunpowder. Such was the prison’s symbolic power that July 14 became the French national holiday, and the prison itself was dismantled stone by stone.

A century later, Devil’s Island came to represent everything that could be said about prison horror in the life of the French Republic. Tiny Devil’s Island was only the smallest of three prison islands off the coast of French Guyana, in South America, and all three together were small compared to the vast French prison colonies onshore.

It was just that Devil’s Island was used for political prisoners, seldom more than 12 at any one time. The most famous of them was Alfred Dryfus, a French army officer falsely accused of treason at the end of the 19th century. It was thought that his being Jewish had something to do with his sentencing.

Dreyfus lived to come back to France, acquitted, but many, many died of disease in the torpid climate, and sometimes they were required to stay in French Guyana even after their sentences were up.

Up until the time of Napoleon III, prisoners were kept on “hulks,” disused wooden war ships anchored in French harbors. Napoleon III looked towards his overseas colonies instead, his prisoners, unwanted in France. Algeria was ruled out for bureaucratic reasons. There was talk of Haiti, and even Spanish Cuba. But French Guyana won out in 1852.

In all 80,000 men, most of them common criminals, passed through French Guyana’s prison system. Few ever saw France again. The “Ile du Diable” started as a leper colony, but then switched to political lepers such as Dryfus.

Very few prisoners escaped, but enough did to tell their tales and write their books, so that the prison became synonymous with excessive cruelty and brutality.

The actual conditions for political prisoners weren’t all that bad, if they could stay healthy, but the reputation of Devil’s Island was hurting the good name of France itself. The entire prison system was shut down for good in 1953, and today its cells are there only for tourists seeking the thrill of seeing where men suffered.

To the north of Devil’s Island, across the Caribbean Sea, is Guantanamo Bay, the American navy base that has, like its predecessors, become a symbol of arbitrary power where prisoners, unwanted in the United States, are held for endless years without hope or even a trial to determine their guilt.

Louis XIV would understand it very well, but for others brought up on the rule of law and due process, their continued detention remains inscrutable.