Unlike Alcatraz, its American analog, the island-bound San Lucas Prison was ringed by lush jungle, turquoise waters, and stunning sandy beaches. Escapes were virtually impossible (only two people were ever unaccounted for). The average prisoner sentence: 7 years. The average life expectancy: 5 years.
The worst of San Lucas Prison’s worst were caged in its maximum security wing. Inmates lived in barracks that radiated around a central courtyard and a water cistern called “The Hole” repurposed into a torture chamber. They were placed in the dank, underground space for days on end. Light and fresh air filtered into the oppressive area through two grapefruit-sized vents. Prisoners would drop through shoulder-width openings that were then capped with heavy cement disks. Inside the pit, temperatures regularly reached 140-degrees Fahrenheit and during my brief exploration of the eerie space, bats screeched in its darkest corners and I exploded in sweat in seconds after sliding in.
Up to 25 men were crammed into the surrounding corrugated tin barracks without fans, ventilation, or running water. They slept on the floor and the bathroom was an open-top metal drum. The newer (or weaker) the prisoner, the closer they slept to the malodorous toilet. Cell walls were (and still are) covered in prison art. Drawings of the devil (many prisoners were reportedly satanists), Jesus, women, sexual scenes, violence, swastikas, and homoeroticism cover the cells. Jose Leon Sanchez, a former prisoner who served 30-years of a life sentence (all-the-while claiming innocence) tells the story of prison life (including being tortured with matchsticks) in his book Isla de Los Hombres Solos. It was later made into a full-length film.
San Lucas Prison is also believed to be haunted. Stories of ghosts are common and while a bit hokey, the show Ghost Hunters International spent a night there chasing the supernatural.
Check out the interactive virtual tour of San Lucas Prison’s maximum security wing. For full effect, be sure to click full screen.