In the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas lie several archipelagos of small Italian islands, some measuring only a few hundred meters across: the Pontine Islands, southwest of Rome; the Aeolian Islands, north of Messina; the Aegadian Islands, west of Sicily; the Pelagie archipelago, some two hundred miles south of Sicily, closer to the shores of Tunisia; and, finally, the Tremiti Islands, off the coast of northern Puglia in the Adriatic. A handful of these islands – Ponza, Ventotene, Lipari, Ustica, Favignana, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, San Domino, and San Nicola – have served as sites of confinement, exile, and punishment for thousands of years. In the time of the Roman Empire, most of them hosted political exiles, often bothersome family members of the emperor. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Italian peninsula's various kingdoms used them as penal colonies. After Italy's Unification in I860, the islands continued to serve as sites of punishment, exile, and, during times of war, internment. Although today these places are beautiful, sun-drenched tourist destinations, at the beginning of the twentieth century most were desolate, desiccated, wind-swept rocks. Their coasts – high, jagged cliffs -rendered them virtual prisons amid vast expanses of rolling sea.
Between 1926 and 1943, Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime arrested and deported tens of thousands of Italians to these islands. In the 1930s, when the island “confinement colonies” became too full, the regime exiled “less dangerous” detainees to small, isolated villages in the Mezzogiorno, Italy's impoverished south.