The 1400-acre island wasn't always a prison. Located just seven miles north of Cape Town, early Dutch settlers first used Robben Island for hunting and cattle ranching. It was later used as a leper colony, mental asylum, military base, and prison for common criminals. In 1961, the first black political prisoners were housed at Robben Island, and South Africa continued to use it as a prison until 1996.
The most famous political prisoner held at Robben Island was Nelson Mandela. During his 18 years on the island, Mandela was allowed 12 family visits of 30 minutes each per year, and the visitors had to be over 18. When his 16 year old son was killed in an auto accident, Mandela had not seen him since he was a baby. Mandela was sent to another prison on the mainland in 1982. Since then, he has returned 14 times to the island, the last time in 2006 to light the Olympic torch.