Mexican Prisons

Date: 1910
Owner: Taylor Mus. for SW Studies, Col. Springs Fine Arts Center
Source Type: Images


These broadsides, "Ballad of the Penitentiary of Mexico" and "Very Sad Lamentations of an Exile sent to Islas Marias" comment on the two most important prisons of the Porfirio Diaz era (1876-1911). These institutions were meant to reflect the positivism of the late nineteenth century, the idea that the prison system should be based on empirically proven social needs. Mexico's cientificos, including Justo Sierra and Jose Limantour, tried self-consciously to create modern institutions and thus based their reforms on the novel theories of penologists and criminologists from Europe and the U.S.

The National Penitentiary opened in 1900 (after several decades of budget shortages) and was based largely on Jeremy Bentham's idea of the Panopticon, a prison in which an inmate is (or at least believes he/she is) under constant observation. Positivistic science "proved" that old fashioned jails merely encouraged criminal behavior so the National Penitentiary used an all encompassing "point system" that supposedly engrained prisoners with the idea that--in prison as in life--good behavior leads to happiness. Behavior modification was one of the major tenets of positivistic penology and the cientificos and others were convinced that such measures were necessary to root out the criminal element in society. This broadside emphasizes the loneliness of the inmates in the penitentiary, who were subject to almost complete isolation, a novel penological technique known as the "Philadelphia system."

The second broadside is of the Islas Marias, a prison colony begun in Diaz's Mexico in 1908. Although reformers had faith in the modern penitentiary system, most Mexican criminals were still put in crowded jail houses that were believed to harden criminals and encourage recidivism. The penal colony was meant to solve this problem by geographically isolating the criminal element that would, if released into society, further corrupt Mexico and hinder its ascension to modernity. This poster is written from the point of view of one about to be shipped off to the penal colony, and he is noting all of the miseries that await him there.

By all contemporary accounts, these prisons were squalid institutions with filthy facilities and rotten food where inhumane treatment was the norm. The debate over prison reform goes back to the late eighteenth century, but it would not be until the 1960s that significant improvements were made in Mexico's penal system.


Buffington, Robert M. Criminal and Citizen in Modern Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

CITATION: Posada, Josa Guadalupe. "Ballad of the Penitentiary of Mexico" and "Very Sad Lamentations of an Exile Sent to Islas Marias." Courtesy of the Taylor Museum for Southwest Studies of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.