Exploring Barcelona’s La Modelo Prison ~ Political Oppression & 1,000 Executions

A symbol of political and ideological oppression, Barcelona’s infamous 113-year-old Modelo prison staged some 1,000 executions, the most recent of which was in 1974.

La Modelo is now open to the general public (minus the inmates) and makes for a truly fascinating experience, the sort that makes you realise how lucky you are to have your boring little “normal life”, to be free.

But be quick – there are plans to demolish it!

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018DSCF5700

Words & photos by your prison-breaking guide, Ben Holbrook.

The Story

Part 1: A (Failed) Model of Excellence

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018DSCF5798

One of the inner courtyards – overlooked by apartment buildings and a glitzy hotel.

Opened in 1904, La Modelo prison was an innovative men’s correctional facility designed as an example of how prisons could and should be run, hence the name, “The Model”.

It has six cell blocks radiating from a polygonal central body, where the watchtowers are located, allowing for total surveillance and control.

But it was in no way a model of excellence and it didn’t take long for things to go awry.

Part 2: A Political Safe House… or Slaughterhouse? 

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018DSCF5700

The hauntingly eery inner halls.

During the Twenties, the Centre Penitenciari d’Homes La Model was filled with petty criminals and political activists opposed to the regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera, the dictator and Prime Minister of Spain from 1923 to 1930.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018

Built in 1904, it originally sat outside of the city. But today, it is engulfed by the city, surrounded by apartment buildings, cafes, shops, luxury hotels… and a carwash.

The prison continued to be used to silence political opponents during Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, when it was known as ‘the ideological island’, because inmates felt that they could talk more freely of their political ideas inside the prison than outside.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018DSCF5700

The ‘Oh shit!’ emergency lock-down button.

Though Barcelona’s La Modelo prison was built to house some 850 inmates, there were times when it was filled with as many as 13,000. As you might imagine, the conditions were less than exemplary and many died or were driven to suicide.

A final decision will be made on how the space will be repurposed in 2019, so I highly recommend paying a visit sooner rather than later.

Most horrifically of all, Barcelona’s Modelo prison staged some 1,000 executions, the last of which was the frighteningly recent garrotte execution (i.e. strangled to death with a piece of wire or rope) of political activist Salvador Puig Antich in 1974.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018It was finally closed in 2017, left hauntingly untouched, and today you can visit this eerily intriguing time capsule in person.

My Personal Experience

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

The polygonal central hub/deathstar.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

Please have a seat. We won’t keep you long.

La Modelo prison was originally built beyond the city limits, but was eventually engulfed by Barcelona as it grew out of its historic core.

It is now located somewhat bizarrely right in the thick of the Eixample barrio, about a five-minute stroll away from where I live, surrounded by apartment buildings, cafes, bars, restaurants, shops… and a carwash.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018From the inner courtyard, which is depressingly small, I could see the top floors of the 4* Gran Hotel Torre Catalunya. If you had stayed there in recent years, you would have had a clear view of the inmates at play.

If you could add Bill Murray to the scene, you’d be halfway to a decent looking Wes Anderson film.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

What does freedom look like to you?

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018At first glance, it doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be locked away. Barcelona’s blistering sun seeps into the palm-filled courtyards, into the little windows that flood the complex with light, constantly reminding you how close the outside world is. Within reach, yet lightyears away.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

Dinner time.

The visiting booths and hulking iron gates are painted in soft hues of eggshell-pink. If you could add Bill Murray to the scene, you’d be halfway to a decent looking Wes Anderson film.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

Visiting booth or Wes Anderson film set?

As a visitor, you are free to wander two of the six wings and enter a number of the cells and various corridors, all of which or linked with heavy metal doors baring the scars of repetition, routine and drudgery.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018It hasn’t been touched, nothing has really changed.

It’s as if the prisoners and guards were evacuated overnight. I imagined finding a canteen filled with half-eaten, still-hot trays of food, and I would look to my imaginary crimefighting sidekick and say, “They can’t have gone far. Assemble the team. I want them alive.”

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

The Cells, a Strange Sense of Pity

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018When you see a prisoner on TV or in the newspaper, knowing what they did to arrive in their current situation, it is easy to feel little in the way of empathy. They got what they deserved, after all.

But here at La Modelo, where you are left with nothing but foot-worn scuffs in the ground and juvenile graffiti, you can’t help but feel a sense of pity.

Life without freedom is not life

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

Graffiti in one of the cells. Some drawings use the contours of the walls to create a three-dimensional appearance.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook of www.driftwoodjournals.com 2018

In some cells there are little pencil sketches on the walls of guns and animals that could have been drawn on the cover of a child’s school book. These scrawled relics, not of criminal masterminds, but of childish delinquents.

What had they done to be locked in this hell? Had they killed or had they stolen? Or had they simply said the wrong thing to the wrong politician?

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018DSCF5737

“Se fuerte” (Be strong).

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018

“Life without freedom is not life, I say.”

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018

Imagine spending your life in here, with two other convicted criminals.

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018

When you’re in prison and still growing…

Other cells feature comparatively intricate works of art and more prophetic words: “Se fuerte” (be strong) and “La vida sin libertad no es vida, he dicho” (Life without freedom is not life, I say).

It gets you thinking about incarceration. About what’s fair. About punishment and how much of it is correct. And it makes you think about your life and all the decisions you’ve made, how lucky you are to be free in the world.

Make it Happen

La Modelo Prison in Barcelona - Copyright Ben Holbrook 2018

One booted over the barbed-wire fence.

It seems the city council can’t quite decide what to do with it.

Originally they said they would knock it down and build retirement properties for the elderly, student accommodation or a sports centre.

Strangely, and typically of Barcelona, a children’s preschool now occupies one of the wings and courtyards, which I find ironic considering how much school always felt like prison to me.

A final decision will be made on how the space will be repurposed in 2019, so I highly recommend paying a visit sooner rather than later.

This living piece of history’s future looks as perilous as its past.

Address: Center Penitenciari d’Homes La Model, Carrer d’Entença, 155, 08029 Barcelona

Nearest Metro: Sants Estacio 

Entry Fee: FREE

Opening/Visiting Hours: Fridays 3pm to 6pm / Saturdays 10am to 6pm

More Infowww.lamodel.barcelona


 

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.