Miami Herald

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

- BY LEILA MILLER Los Angeles Times

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

Sent here in the early 1900s to populate the country’s southern tip, they paved the roads and heated homes with timber they hauled 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 grew into a significan­t port city of 80,000 and a hub for ecotourism. Ships depart regularly for Antarctica.

The prison has been turned into a museum and “dark tourism” attraction — like Chernobyl — that serves as a reminder that Ushuaia owes its existence largely to the labor of the inmates.

Gift shops tout a seemingly endless supply of prison-themed souvenirs, among them baby onesies and oven mitts in the signature design of prison uniforms — yellow and blue horizontal stripes.

The End of the World Train that traverses the Tierra del Fuego National Park simulates the forest journey that prisoners made daily and invites passengers to experience “the charm of an era that has passed.”

The kitschines­s fuels a debate about whether commodifyi­ng “dark tourism” is distastefu­l or makes history more accessible. Ryan C. Edwards, the 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 the stories, be somber about it and then be happy when you’re trekking through the mountains,” he said.

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

“The one is because of the other,” Edwards said, “and are we okay with that?”

When Argentina establishe­d a subprefect­ure in Tierra del Fuego in 1884, after signing a treaty with Chile that divided the territory between both countries, the region was populated by Indigenous people and English missionari­es.

Argentine officials, including President Julio Roca, saw a prison as a way to obtain a reliable source of hands and occupy the territory to defend it from Chile. For models, they looked to penal colonies around the world, including Britain’s settlement in Australia.

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

A group of prisoners that was promised reduced sentences volunteere­d to transfer to Ushuaia to build a jail for civilians, according to Edwards. In 1902, the founding stone was laid in sight of the shores of the Beagle Channel.

The prison’s design, five long cellblocks that meet at a rotunda like spokes on a wheel, was inspired by the famous Eastern State Penitentia­ry in Philadelph­ia. Some proponents thought that physical labor and Patagonia’s nature and cold climate could help rehabilita­te the prisoners.

“There’s a belief that cold, frigid zones will actually temper criminal habits,” said Edwards. “You get a very scientific penitentia­ry in a very cold region that they believe to be salubrious.”

The penitentia­ry grew to 380 cells while housing more than 500 prisoners at a time, and suffered from overcrowdi­ng. The prison had a bakery, mechanic, tailor shop, newspaper and sawmill, and prisoners handled the city’s constructi­on projects. The prison also ran a plant that generated electricit­y for the town, which experience­d blackouts when the prison, under the jurisdicti­on of the country’s Ministry of Justice, cut off electricit­y during conflicts with local officials.

“The town became completely dependent on the jail,” said Silvana Mabel Cecarelli, an Argentine historian who has written several books on the prison. “They wanted a crib, they had to buy it from the prisoners.”

Prisoners who escaped weren’t expected to survive. Some made it to the wilderness only to start fires in hopes of being spotted and rescued.

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

The case of Simón Radowitzky, an anarchist who was transferre­d to Ushuaia in 1911 after assassinat­ing the Buenos Aires police chief in the aftermath of violent clashes between police and labor movement protesters, put a media spotlight on the prison and fostered demands for its closure.

Journalist­s who visited wrote about disease and lack of heating. One reporter from a Buenos Aires newspaper who secretly interviewe­d prisoners as they worked outside wrote that “Ushuaia, the cursed land, is a disgusting stain on the Republic.”

“It was like leaving them forgotten,” said Cecarelli. “The area got a reputation as a place of punishment; that’s why it was called the ‘Siberia Criolla,’” the Argentine Siberia.

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

Ushuaia’s families adapted to the environmen­t, warming their beds with heated bricks and spending their free time ice skating in the street, climbing a nearby glacier and trekking in the forest. News from Buenos Aires and the rest of the world arrived by radio, and canned food and supplies arrived on cargo ships in the port.

Mar Tita Garea, 84, an Ushuaia resident known as one of the “old settlers,” recalled that her father, who worked in the prison’s tailor shop when she was a child, would bring home fresh bread from the prison’s bakery every day.

“It was tasty, even tastier than what my mother would make,” she said

 ?? LEILA MILLER Los Angeles Times/TNS ?? Visitors walk through the long cellblocks of Ushuaia’s prison turned museum. The associated town became heavily reliant on the penal facility in Tierra del Fuego.
LEILA MILLER Los Angeles Times/TNS Visitors walk through the long cellblocks of Ushuaia’s prison turned museum. The associated town became heavily reliant on the penal facility in Tierra del Fuego.
 ?? ?? Mar Tita Garea, 84
Mar Tita Garea, 84

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