This article engages the relationship between prison and place on the island of Tierra del Fuego, in southernmost Patagonia. While Patagonia has piqued popular imaginations for centuries through traveler narratives, these accounts have been reduced to a limited lexicon categorizing the region as prehistoric, desolate, and windswept. Similarly, the Ushuaia penal colony (1902–1947), located on the Beagle Channel, has been narrowly cast as the “Argentine Siberia.” I unpack these evocative labels through an examination of journalist accounts, prison personnel correspondence, and the writings of prisoners exiled to Ushuaia, recuperating more situated visions within this mythic landscape. Some authorities considered Ushuaia a natural prison where engineers could design a modern penitentiary and implement rehabilitation techniques through labor and isolation. I explore the tension produced between these elemental and modern carceral forms and argue that the penal colony was an open-door panopticon, where punishment and routines were aligned with environmental factors that extended beyond the prison walls and thereby complicated progressive criminology. Prisoner labor in the town and the surrounding forests rarely rehabilitated the condemned, and it instead created a dependent prison industry that helped develop a region that for decades had posed settlement problems for Argentine statesmen. This dynamic relationship between the prison, town, and landscape created a carceral ecology within which different actors and elements played various yet entangled roles. As perceptions of Ushuaia were informed by one's status and form of confinement or relative freedom, we see divergent as well as overlapping understandings of the region rather than a monolithic landscape at “The End of the World.”
From the Depths of Patagonia: The Ushuaia Penal Colony and the Nature of “The End of the World”
Ryan Edwards is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Cornell University. He received his MA in History, with a minor in Latin American Studies, from Cornell in 2013, and his BA in Geography in 2009 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned the departmental citation. He is currently conducting fieldwork in Argentina and Chile for his dissertation, tentatively titled “A Carceral Ecology: Earth and Elsewhere in Argentina's Ushuaia Penal Colony (1860–1960),” funded by a grant from the Fulbright Institute of International Education and an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council.
Ryan Edwards; From the Depths of Patagonia: The Ushuaia Penal Colony and the Nature of “The End of the World”. Hispanic American Historical Review 1 May 2014; 94 (2): 271–302. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-2641262
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