The last days of La Modelo, the legendary prison in Catalonia

By Romee van Klaveren

The oldest and most well-known prison in Catalonia, de Centro Penitenciario de Hombres de Barcelona, also known as La Modelo, officially closed theirits doors in June 2017, just before its their 113th birthday. Part of the prison is now open for the public and soon the complex of almost three hectares in the neighbourhood L’Eixample will be turned into a cultural and social community centre, including an exhibition about the history of La Modelo. Maria Figueroa, who works for the Ajuntament of Barcelona, gave The International Angle a special tour of the whole prison.

La Modelo was built outside the centre of Barcelona in an, at that time, empty L’ Eixample. The old prison Amàlia in El Raval was a rebuilt monastery and in 1840 had reached its maximum capacity. According to Maria, it was nicknamed La Modelo because this prison had to be a ‘model’ of modernity, and was supposed to be an example for prison reform in Spain. The construction lasted more than 17 years and cost about three and a half million pesetas, about €18,300.

On June 9, 1904, La Modelo was inaugurated. Pere Armengol i Cornet, the secretary general who stood behind the project since 1881, died before he could see the result. According to his thoughts, the prisons in Spain were provided with basic facilities such as restaurants, clinics and common work spaces. And to protect the prisoners against aggression and bad influences, he chose for individual cells with a window, a bed, a sink, electricity and water. The selection and training of the prison staff would also play an important role in the success of this new prison system.

Not always a good role model

Maria: ‘La Modelo was supposed to be an exemplary prison. And however the design and the idea was to improve the human conditions, the past showed that this wasn’t always like that. La Modelo was originally designed for a maximum of 800 prisoners, but this amount was exceeded multiple times. Like at the end of the civil war in the 1930ies the prison held more than 13.000 people, from thieves to people who were against the Franco regime. Some of them were executed, others were released.’

 Back in the days it was not really hard to escape from prison. The biggest escape happened at June 2, 1978, when almost 600 prisoners left La Modelo through a tunnel from the nursing room to the exit of the sewer at the intersection of the streets Provença and Entença.

The fact that it was no fun to live in La Modelo is reflected in the many riots and protests of the prisoners. The darkest moments in the history of La Modelo were probably during the civil war and the Franco dictatorship. But the 80s and 90s were also very turbulent times. By smuggling drugs, alcohol and even knives into the building, La Modelo became one of the most dangerous prisons. So that’s how the ‘exemplary’ La Modelo became an example of what a prison not should be.

 According to Maria, La Modelo often served as an instrument of oppression in its 113 years of existence. During the most turbulent moments of the city’s history, such as coups, wars, dictatorships and even during the turmoil of the transition to a democratic country, La Modelo was always there to keep the population under control.’

Murders, abuse of power, pettiness and malice by prison staff to the prisoners are some of the issues that gave La Modelo a bad reputation. Dozens of executions took place here, the ones with the so-called garrote vil (strangler) are the creepiest. The last execution with the garrote vil took place on March 2, 1974, to carry out the death penalty of the young activist Salvador Puig Antich, member of the movement Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación (MIL).

Time to close the doors

The closure was announced long ago: La Modelo had to be replaced by a new prison in the Zona Franca, but because of a lower capacity utilization, it was decided to distribute the prisoner and the staff over the other the Catalan prisons. On June 8, 2017, the last prisoners were taken from La Modelo and officially closed.

The peculiar form of La Modelo (in panopticon), designed by the architects Josep Domènec i Estapà and Salvador Vinyals, was inspired by other 18th century prisons, where the prison is classified as a star with an epicentre and several galleries with cells from the central heart are easy to oversee.

The panopticon of La Modelo is a protected structure and will not be demolished now that there are new plans for the old prison. In fact, the municipality strives to preserve the structure of the old prison and to build new centers such as primary schools and cultural centers, surrounded by nature.