Was Jonestown a concentration camp?

The use of the term “concentration camp” suggests a predisposition to accepting a certain answer. Certainly the term appears more often in the brochures of the Concerned Relatives, the Temple’s oppositional group, than it does anyplace else in the months before the tragedy.

The fact is, despite rumors to the contrary, there was no barbed wire surrounding Jonestown, the security guards – while intimidating – were members of families within the community itself, and there was access from Jonestown to Georgetown, however limited it might have been, for people who needed medical and dental care or who were rotated in and out of jobs in Guyana’s capital city.

This does not deny that conditions were difficult. People worked long and hard hours under the jungle sun, and were constantly exhorted to work harder still. Food portions and variety were not as much as the leadership wanted, but that was by circumstance and not by design; after all, more nutrition would have resulted in more productivity. Housing was tight and cramped, with more people per cabin and dorm than had been promised, but there were plans to rectify that.

It is also true that the situation was not static, and during the community’s final months – as conditions seemed to deteriorate without any appreciable improvements on the horizon – the mood changed for many. That in turn led to a vicious circle: the more Jones felt as though he was losing control, the tighter he held the reigns of power.  As one young woman who survived November 18 by being in Georgetown said, “Jonestown wasn’t a concentration camp, but there was no freedom.”

Beyond these tribulations, there was undeniable joy. Photographs recovered from Jonestown show more smiles than frowns, more satisfaction than frustration. The people of Jonestown had a community that they took pride in, for their seniors, for their children, and for the adults in between. People planted flowers as well as tended crops, and maintained weed-free walkways and paths between the various buildings.

In the final analysis, though, this question leads to one of perspective. For every Jonestown survivor who talks about the privations and difficulties he or she endured, there is someone who remembers the physical beauty of the surroundings, the sense of community and purpose, and the fulfillment of their own visions. Any deterioration may have been ignored by those that loved it there, but it would have been ominous to those wishing to leave. In short, Jonestown may have been a “concentration camp” to some, but to others, it was paradise on earth.