Image: Newly arrived inmates stand at attention on the pier of the Islas Marias federal prison island in 2005.
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP, file
Newly arrived inmates stand at attention on the pier of the Islas Marias federal prison island located 90 miles south of Mazatlan, Mexico, in this May 12, 2005 file photograph.
updated 11/25/2011 12:52:33 PM ET 2011-11-25T17:52:33

Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified the actor who played the main character in the movie "Papillon." The actor was Steve McQueen.

Six inmates from the last island penal colony in the Americas were recaptured at sea Thursday after they used buoyant containers and wood planks to try to swim to freedom in an escape reminiscent of the 1973 movie "Papillon."

The Mexican Navy said the inmates used empty plastic gas or water tanks to help stay afloat as they swam about 60 miles south of the Islas Marias, a Mexican penal colony where inmates live in small houses and are normally not locked up. Prisoners can tend small gardens and raise food.

The six men were only about 58 miles from the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta when they were spotted by a passing boat early Thursday.

The boat called in a tip to a local naval base, and patrol boats were quickly dispatched to take the men into custody. Photos provided by the Navy showed them men sunburned but alert — and unhappy — on the deck of the patrol vessel.

The men, who ranged in age from 28 to 39 years, were taken back to Puerto Vallarta for a medical check and to be turned back over to prison authorities.

Later, the Interior Department, which is in charge of Mexico's prisons, said the men had been found to be in acceptable health and would be returned to the penal colony "within hours."

The department said prison oversight agency had only been notified the men were missing from the prison on Thursday, the same day they were found at sea, suggesting that their absence had not been noticed when they set off on the escape bid.

The Islas Marias penal colony lies about 70 miles from the mainland, but the prisoners did not swim to the closest shore, which is due east. Instead they apparently swam about 60 miles south, either because prevailing currents carried them that way, they didn't know where they were going or because they were aiming for Vallarta.

The Pacific Ocean forms the main security barrier at the island; while dozens of prisoners are believed to have tried to escape since the penal colony was founded in 1905, local media reports indicate few if any are believed to have made it to the mainland.

The escape bid drew comparisons to the movie "Papillon," in which the main character, played by Steve McQueen, uses a buoyancy device to swim away from a penal colony in French Guyana.

Islas Marias is the last island penal colony in the region.

Panama closed Coiba Island, the only other remaining island penal colony in the Americas, in 2004. That same year, Mexico announced it would spend $2 million to revive the crumbling prison at Islas Marias and increase the inmate population. Normally, about 1,000 to 1,200 inmates are held at the facility.

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