Azkaban has existed since the fifteenth century and was not originally a prison at all. The island in the North Sea upon which the first fortress was built never appeared on any map, Muggle or wizarding, and is believed to have been created, or enlarged, by magical means.
The fortress upon it was originally home to a little-known sorcerer who called himself Ekrizdis. Evidently extremely powerful, but of unknown nationality, Ekrizdis, who is believed to have been insane, was a practitioner of the worst kinds of Dark Arts. Alone in the middle of the ocean, he lured, tortured and killed Muggle sailors, apparently for pleasure, and only when he died, and the concealment charms he had cast faded away, did the Ministry of Magic realise that either island or building existed. Those who entered to investigate refused afterwards to talk of what they had found inside, but the least frightening part of it was that the place was infested with Dementors.
Many in authority thought Azkaban an evil place that was best destroyed. Others were afraid of what might happen to the Dementors infesting the building if they deprived them of their home. The creatures were already strong and impossible to kill; many feared a horrible revenge if they took away a habitat where they appeared to thrive. The very walls of the building seemed steeped in misery and pain, and the Dementors were determined to cling to it. Experts who had studied buildings built with and around Dark magic contended that Azkaban might wreak its own revenge upon anybody attempting to destroy it. The fortress was therefore left abandoned for many years, a home to continually breeding Dementors.
Once the International Statute of Secrecy had been imposed, the Ministry of Magic felt that the small wizarding prisons that existed up and down the country in various towns and villages posed a security risk, because attempts by incarcerated witches and wizards to break out often led to undesirable bangs, smells and light shows. A purpose-built prison, located on some remote Hebridean island, was preferred, and plans had been drawn up when Damocles Rowle became Minister for Magic.
Rowle was an authoritarian who had risen to power on an anti-Muggle agenda, capitalising on the anger felt by much of the wizarding community at being forced to go underground. Sadistic by nature, Rowle scrapped the plans for the new prison at once and insisted on using Azkaban. He claimed that the Dementors living there were an advantage: they could be harnessed as guards, saving the Ministry time, trouble and expense.
In spite of opposition from many wizards, among them experts on both Dementors and buildings with Azkaban’s kind of Dark history, Rowle carried out his plan and soon a steady trickle of prisoners had been placed there. None ever emerged. If they were not mad and dangerous before being placed in Azkaban, they swiftly became so.
Rowle was succeeded by Perseus Parkinson, who was likewise pro-Azkaban. By the time that Eldritch Diggory took over as Minister for Magic, the prison had been operating for fifteen years. There had been no breakouts and no breaches of security. The new prison seemed to be working well. It was only when Diggory went to visit that he realised exactly what conditions inside were like. Prisoners were mostly insane and a graveyard had been established to accommodate those that died of despair.
Back in London, Diggory established a committee to explore alternatives to Azkaban, or at least to remove the Dementors as guards. Experts explained to him that the only reason the Dementors were (mostly) confined to the island was that they were being provided with a constant supply of souls on which to feed. If deprived of prisoners, they were likely to abandon the prison and head for the mainland.
This advice notwithstanding, Diggory had been so horrified by what he had seen inside Azkaban that he pressed the committee to find alternatives. Before they could reach any decision, however, Diggory caught dragon pox and died. From that time until the advent of Kingsley Shacklebolt, no Minister ever seriously considered closing Azkaban. They turned a blind eye to the inhumane conditions inside the fortress, permitted it to be magically enlarged and expanded and rarely visited, due to the awful effects of entering a building populated by thousands of Dementors. Most justified their attitude by pointing to the prison’s perfect record at keeping prisoners locked up.
Nearly three centuries passed before that record was broken. A young man was successfully smuggled out of the prison when his visiting mother exchanged places with him, something that the blind and loveless Dementors could not detect and would have never expected. This escape was followed by another, still more ingenious and impressive, when Sirius Black managed to evade the Dementors single-handed.
The weakness of the prison was demonstrated amply over the next few years, when two mass breakouts occurred, both involving Death Eaters. By this time the Dementors had given their allegiance to Lord Voldemort, who could guarantee them scope and freedom hitherto un-tasted. Albus Dumbledore was one who had long disapproved of the use of Dementors as guards, not only because of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners in their power, but because he foresaw the possible shift in loyalties of such Dark creatures.
Under Kingsley Shacklebolt, Azkaban was purged of Dementors. While it remains in use as a prison, the guards are now Aurors, who are regularly rotated from the mainland. There has been no breakout since this new system was introduced.
The name ‘Azkaban’ derives from a mixture of the prison ‘Alcatraz’, which is its closest Muggle equivalent, being set on an island, and ‘Abaddon’, which is a Hebrew word meaning ‘place of destruction’ or ‘depths of hell’.