With room for just two prisoners, Sark Prison just may be the world’s smallest prison that’s still in use today. It doesn’t receive many inmates these days, but does sometimes host a seasonal worker or tourist after they’ve had one too many drinks.
Sark is a fascinating little island in the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Normandy, France. Measuring just three miles long and one mile wide, and with a population of around 500, it’s one of the smallest of the inhabited Channel Islands.
Despite its small size, Sark has a long and colorful history. It first appears in written history in 1040, when William of Normandy (later William the Conqueror) gave it as a gift to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey. It was captured by the French in 1549, but was soon retaken by the English, and was frequented by smugglers and pirates.
More recently, the strategically important island was occupied by the Germans during World War II. It was also considered the last feudal state in Europe up until 2006, when universal suffrage and democracy were officially introduced. And in 2011, Sark had the honor of becoming the world’s first Dark Sky Island.
Sark also has the distinction of being home to what is probably the smallest prison still in use in the world. Built in 1856, the tiny barrel-roofed prison has two adjoining cells, one measuring 6 feet by 6 feet and the other 6 feet by 8 feet. In front of the cells is a narrow three-foot wide corridor running the length of the building. There are no windows.
One of the earliest known occupants was a young servant girl imprisoned for stealing a pocket handkerchief from her mistress. She was imprisoned for three days. She was so terrified of being locked up in the dark cell that the locals decided to let her put her chair in the open doorway of the prison, where local ladies sat with her, knitting and talking, until her time was served.
These days, crimes on Sark are rare indeed. The island has two unpaid policemen, who bear the titles of Constable and Vingtenier (the Constable’s assistant). The last serious crime took place in 1990, when an unemployed French nuclear physicist named André Gardes launched a one-man invasion of the island, claiming to be the rightful Seigneur (or Lord) of Sark. He rowed across to the island armed with a semi-automatic weapon and put up two posters explaining his intentions. The following day he launched the second phase of his plan, but was promptly punched in the nose by the Constable and arrested.
Since Gardes’s invasion, the Constable and Vingtenier have rarely had to concern themselves with more than an occasional drunk. Most of the prison’s temporary residents have been inebriated seasonal workers and intoxicated tourists, who have spent the night in one of the two cells until they sober up.
Know Before You Go
Sark Prison is located next to the Visitor Center just off Mill Lane in the center of the island. Sark is one of the Channel Islands, and lies about 7 miles east of Guernsey and about 25 miles west of the Cherbourg Peninsula of France. No cars are allowed on the island—only tractors—but it’s easy enough to get around on foot. And if you hear some people "talking funny," it’s because they’re speaking Sercquiais, the Norman dialect of Sark.