The rocky, palm-covered island rises 40 m (130 ft) above sea level. The penitentiary was first opened by Emperor Napoleon III's government in 1852, and became one of the most infamous prisons in history. In addition to the prisons on all three islands, prison facilities were located on the mainland at Kourou. Over time, they became known collectively as "Devil's Island" in the English-speaking world, while they are known in France as the bagne de Cayenne, (French: Cayenne penal colony) Cayenne being the main city of French Guiana.
While the colony was in use (1852–1946), the inmates were everything from political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III's coup d'état) to the most hardened of thieves and murderers. A great many of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the harsh conditions at disease-infested Devil's Island were never seen again. Other than by boat, the only way out was through a dense jungle; accordingly, very few convicts ever managed to escape.
On 30 May 1854, a new law provided that convicts would be forced to stay in French Guiana following their release for a time equal to their forced labour time, or, for sentences exceeding eight years, for the remainder of their lives. They were to be provided with land to settle on. In time, a variety of penal regimes emerged, convicts being divided into categories according to the severity of their crimes and their imprisonment or forced residence regime.
In 1885, a further law accelerated the process, since repeat offenders for minor crimes could also be sent. A limited number of convicted women were also sent to French Guiana, with the intent that they marry the freed male inmates; however, the results were poor and the government discontinued the practice in 1907.Devil's Island was used mainly for French prisoners from 1852 to 1946.
Clément Duval, an anarchist, was sent to Devil's Island in 1886. He was sentenced to death but this sentence commuted to hard labour on Devil's Island. He contracted smallpox while on the island. He escaped in April 1901 and fled to New York City, where he remained for the rest of his life. He eventually wrote a book on his time of imprisonment called Revolte.
Henri Charrière's bestselling book Papillon describes a supposedly successful escape from Devil's Island, with a companion, Sylvain, using two sacks filled with coconuts. According to Charrière, the two men leapt into heavy seas from a cliff and drifted to the mainland over a period of three days. Sylvain died in quicksand a short distance from the shore.
In 1938 the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil's Island, and in 1952 the prison was closed. Most of the prisoners returned to metropolitan France, although some chose to remain in French Guiana.
In 1965, the French government transferred the responsibility of most of the islands to the newly founded Guiana Space Centre. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched eastward, toward the sea, from the Centre (to geostationary orbit). They must be evacuated during each launch. The islands host a variety of measurement apparatus for space launches.
The CNES space agency, in association with other agencies, has since had the historical monuments restored. Tourism facilities were added; the islands now welcome more than 50,000 tourists each year.