The world’s southernmost prison, closed for 50 years, has reopened its steel doors and tiny cells, but criminals don’t need to worry.

Only tourists will now visit Ushuaia prison, in Tierra de Fuego –an island shared by Argentina and Chile at the southern tip of South America– turned into a prison and maritime museum.

Ushuaia is a bustling city of 40-thousand, capital of Tierra de Fuego, Argentina’s southernmost province.

A jumping off point for tourist cruises to Antarctica –one thousand kilometres (625 miles) further south, Ushuaia has now a new attraction.

These yellow stone walls once enclosed as many as 11-hundred prisoners at a time between 1902 and 1947.

Now Ushuaia prison has been turned over to private businessmen for restoration as a prison and maritime museum.

Argentine officials decided to establish a penal colony here, in the eastern, Argentinean half of Tierra de Fuego seeking to reinforce their territorial claims on the island.

The idea had already been used by Britain on Australia and France in French Guyana.

SOUNDBITE: (Spanish)
“They had the idea of building a prison in Ushuaia, on Tierra de Fuego island, to colonise this area. That’s what the prison was for. And they succeeded, because for many people the prison is a horrible, sad idea, something to forget, but it founded Ushuaia, and it has been the centre of the city since.”
SUPER CAPTION: Jorge Trabuchi, museum director

The five two storey pavilions were completed in 1920.

In the beginning only the toughest prisoners, repeat offenders and those serving life sentences were sent here.

Life in prison in those days has been recreated in the museum by statues of guards and inmates, and old photographs.

Perhaps the most notorious inmate was Santos Godino “el Orejudo” (The guy with big ears), seen here.

A serial killer of children in Buenos Aires, Godino was slain by fellow inmates.

Conditions were harsh in Ushuaia. Leg irons were often used and as many as three or four convicts shared cells measuring two metres by three (6 feet by 9 feet).

They wore heavy striped uniforms to protect against the cold.

But they learnt how to fight the bad weather.

Convicts built the world’s southernmost railway, linking the prison to a wood cutting area 25 kilometres (16 miles) away.

SOUNDBITE: (Spanish)
“Today you enter the part of the building where the prison exhibition is and it’s cold, but a person who worked in the prison said he touched the wall and it was warm. They had a train to get wood. They weren’t more uncomfortable than in the city.”
SUPER CAPTION: Jorge Trabuchi, museum director

Tourists can now ride “the train at the end of the world”, on cars pulled by a small steam engine.

And they can learn various stories about Ushuaia prison, like the escape of Simon Radowitzky, an anarchist convicted of slaying a policeman, who fled aboard a sailboat.

Or even Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s legendary tango singer who is reputed to have served time in this prison before he began his singing career.

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