Room for Two

The map above is of the English Channel, the body of water separating England and France, but that’s not why I’m sharing it. If you look carefully, you’ll see the word “Sark” in italics in the middle of the map, about a third of the way up from the bottom. Sark is a tiny island — it’s about two square miles and home to only about 600 people. It’s part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom. And it has some weird laws — which is probably because, until 2008, it was a feudal state. (The island instituted a parliament that year.) In some regards, Sark is a throwback to a point in time which the rest of the Western world has long passed.

Which helps explain why this exists:

That’s Sark’s prison. With room for only two inmates, it’s the world’s smallest. But it’s rarely used, for a few reasons.

First, Sark hasn’t had a very large police department for a long time. For example, when the head of its feudal government, Dame Sibyl Hathaway, died in 1974, the New York Times noted that “the security of the island is in the hands of two police officers; the jail accommodates two prisoners.” But more recently, that police force has fallen to zero members — there are volunteer constables but no full-time professional law enforcement officers.

And second, Sark just simply doesn’t have a lot of crime. As a rather insular place, most residents know one another. In 2006, the Independent addressed the two-man prison by pointing out one of its rare uses:

At the end of The Avenue there’s a two-cell jail, more accustomed to holding tourists without a bed for the night than criminals. It is empty. There was a break-in at Sark’s only jewellers, Rang, last summer, but it was all rather inept; the drunken offender left the island’s voluntary policeman a series of clues, not least the string of jewels trailing back to his hotel.

And, according to Sark’s official website, the prison (they insist, questionably, that it’s a prison, not a jail), is still in use today as needed, “mostly to hold inebriated seasonal workers or, occasionally, to sober up merrymaking visitors.” (Apparently, there isn’t much to do on Sark except drink.)

That said, the most notable recent use of the jail was for a fake crime: volunteer police “arrested” two men, one for “selling very strange underwear” and the other for “wearing anti-social head and footwear” — and collected their bail money from passersby as the two “crooks” marched to prison. The stunt was a fundraiser for the island and raised approximately £500 for the Methodist chapel.

Bonus fact: The head of the Sark government is called the Seigneur (if a man) or Dame (if a woman). As Sark is a hereditary monarchy, you usually need to be born into the job. But in 1844, there was an exception. The Seigneur fell into hard times and — with the permission of the British crown — mortgaged the title. When his son couldn’t make ends meet and defaulted on the loan, the lender’s daughter took possession of it, becoming the next Dame of Sark.

From the Archives: Dark Sark: Sark doesn’t allow cars. Here’s why. (Also, the bonus item is probably one of those times Sark used its jail.)

Related: A tiny, more elaborate prison than Sark’s.

Image of Sark prison via Flickr.