Photo: Vincent Guillerm

La Model | The Brutal Story of Franco’s Notorious Torture Prison

...and why a group of ex-inmates are fighting to preserve it

by Paul Gibbins; photos by Vincent Guillerm; translated by Helena Arévalo Martínez, and Jordi Pallarés
Jan 31 2019, 12:00pm

Photo: Vincent Guillerm

"There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" - from the grave of Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Catalonia.

Barcelona is a city packed with architectural wonders, but the Via Laietana office of Carlos Vallejo, head of the Catalan Association of Former Political Prisoners, is not one of them. Especially not on a day like today, where the pavements are greasy with rain, and building work to the nearby Jaume I metro station has the air & ground thick with dirt and dust.

I’m here to speak to Carlos about what is still one of the most contentious issues in Spain and Catalonia: the political, cultural, and tangible legacy of General Francisco Franco. Carlos spent two separate spells in Barcelona’s dreaded La Model prison during the 1970s, for his association with trade unions while working in a Seat auto factory. He later spent time as a political exile in Paris, accused of the crimes of conspiracy, propaganda, and illegal gatherings against the dictatorship. Had he been arrested, he would have faced 20 years in prison.

The prison's menacing exterior, complete with guard tower. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

Waiting with Carlos is Gabriel Garcia, an Almerian communist who spent 2 years in La Model for the crime of “propaganda”, and Pedro Diez Gil, a painter who, much like Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies, helped to raise funds and support for political prisoners.

Once inside, I’m taken to a small, windowless office which - in contrast to the mundanity of the rest of the building - is daubed with anti-fascist artwork, including a large tribute to Catalan leader Lluis Companys, whose execution was ordered by Franco in 1940.

“Sometimes when a prisoner had complained about something, the guards would take them away at night time and whip them. Some died in the basements, and we could hear their screams”

Pedro explains that, despite never spending time in jail, he has been part of the fight against fascism in Spain “from the first moment. Because to me it meant to be reborn in a Spain that I wanted to free, and in which we were enslaved”. And in Barcelona, the struggle against Franco and fascism always - eventually - came back to La Model.

An eerie glimpse of the outside world from behind the bars of La Model. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

The garroting of Salvador Puig Antich became a cause célèbre in the Catalan, and international, anti-fascist movements. Photos: a video still from a dramatised biopic of Puig Antich, and a mural from Wikimedia Commons

El Centre Penitenciari d'Homes de Barcelona, or La Model as it is more commonly known, was a prison for 113 years, only closing its doors two years ago, in 2017. During the Francoist era, La Model became a symbol of political power for the state, hosting over 1,000 executions, including such gruesome penalties as the garroting of Salvador Puig Antich in 1974, which prompted international outcry.

Taking up an entire block to itself in the Sants neighbourhood, its architecture varies between the sinister, omniscient dome in the centre, and the outright aggression of the huge, flat perimeter walls - adorned, like any pious construction, with a barbed-wire crown.

The prison's enormous, battered courtyard. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

“At the time [that it was built] it was an exemplary prison,” explains Carlos, “the cells were designed to hold a single prisoner, so it was more spacious and hygienic than the other prisons - because they weren’t prisons, they were dungeons. It was progressive, from an architectural point of view”.

The prison was built between 1881 and 1904, and was based on the design of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The shape of the building was intended to ensure that all inmates constantly felt as if they were under surveillance. Bentham himself described the design as either “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” or “a mill for grinding rogues honest”, depending on who was asking.

The prison's ornate 19th century tented roof. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

In his seminal book Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault elaborated on the Panopticon concept, claiming that a prisoner who was aware of his own constant visibility “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; [...] he becomes the principle of his own subjection”.

Foucault would also suggest that the Panopticon concept would prevent plots to escape or commit further crimes, and also that it could end prisoners’ negative influences over each other. La Model was a prison designed to intimidate and subjugate: to score a victory over the inmates that was more than just physical, imprisoning their mind and soul as well as their bodies.

The Panopticon interior hall of La Model. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

However utopian the original one man, one cell design of the prison, the relentless oppression of the Franco regime would eventually see La Model filled up to 20 times over. “During the post-war period, it was terrible,” explains Carlos, “there were 20 or 30,000 prisoners - 20 prisoners to each cell”. By the time Carlos and Gabriel entered La Model, there were roughly three prisoners to a cell.

These days, the interior walls are painted a nondescript eggshell beige colour, in stark contrast to the filthy, claustrophobic black/grey milieu in which Carlos and Gabriel lived. “In the cells there was an iron bunk bed and another single bed,” explains Carlos, “with dirty mattresses; filthy, stuffed with straw, and full of insects... full of bedbugs. We had to set the beds on fire to try to kill the bedbugs, but then they would just climb the walls and fall from the ceiling instead”. “On top of that, they gave you a disgusting blanket,” says Carlos, “a military blanket, that was stiff because of so many people wanking on it”.

The cold, sterile rows of cells inside the prison. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

For the political prisoners, their time in La Model was one of education, of training, and of reaffirming dedication to their causes. Some inmates nicknamed La Model ‘the Ideological Island’, as it was sometimes easier to discuss politics inside the prison than it was outside. This meant that when some prisoners came out of La Model, they would often emerge with their original views reinforced, as Gabriel tells me: “I wasn't a member of any party when I went to prison, but when I got out, I joined the Bandera Roja [a Spanish Communist Party].”

It was a brave move, however. At the time, the penalties for this kind of “re-offending” were beyond severe. “In the 40s and 50s, there were so many death sentences, and huge sentences for political crimes,” explains Carlos, “to continue [after release] in those times, in the 40s, was to be a true hero”.

Cells 446-448 of La Model, now painted in pastel pink. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

Inside, conditions were almost as brutal. Carlos claims the guards were often given their positions due to having supported Franco or being Falangistas. “They hated us, they saw us as the enemy,” says Carlos, “but they couldn’t take things further with us, because we would stand up for ourselves and each other”.

One of the most common forms of protest was to go on a hunger strike, which would often result in prisoners being kept into solitary confinement. To keep sane, Carlos tells me that prisoners would plot their escape, attempt to talk to each other in morse code, or empty their toilet and speak through the plumbing.

As well as stints in solitary, the guards would often indulge in cruel physical punishments. “Sometimes when a prisoner had complained about something, or had been undisciplined, they would take them away at night time and whip them.” says Carlos, “Some died in the basements, and we could hear their screams”.

Suicide netting bridging the gap between floors. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

Since its closure in 2017, La Model has been transformed into a museum and has held various exhibitions - free on Fridays and Saturdays - about the fight against fascism in Spain, as well as other more recent fights for social justice. It is not yet decided what is to be done with the building, and there is a chance that it may be demolished. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Carlos and Gabriel both believe it should survive.

This may seem strange considering the trauma they suffered within its walls, but as Carlos explains: “It was very interesting architecturally, and we want [to develop] a centre for interpreting the history of La Model - and that is why we have fought to save the prison from being demolished.”

La Model's very own barbershop. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

Of course, the story of La Model goes far beyond the bricks, concrete, and mortar, and Carlos’s centre of interpretation would help to unravel the many tangled narratives of the prison, and to explain its relationship to the barbarous history of fascism in Spain. “Since 1910 until 3 years ago, all the political and union leaders who have fought against injustice have been incarcerated in La Model,” explains Carlos, “from the prisoners of La Semana Trágica in 1909, to libertarian unionists from the 20s and 30s, and then during the dictatorship. All the social struggles of Barcelona and Catalonia are reflected in the history of La Model”.

Carlos believes that being able to fully explain the horrors of fascism is vital to preventing its recurrence. “We believe that La Model is a good tool to help create a democratic culture [of] tolerance, and respect for one another,” he tells me. “We don't understand how there are still people who can vote for anyone who defends torture, which sadly is being brought back to use by leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Trump in the United States.”

The visiting booth; a rare window into life on the outside. Photo: Vincent Guillerm

Many of La Model’s most famous inmates have gone down in Spanish history as heroes and revolutionaries, but were it not for the sacrifice and solidarity of thousands of others, their struggles may have come to nothing. After Spain’s transition to democracy, the country took on an official ‘pact of forgetting’, and as such, the nation still grapples with the tortuous legacy of those dark and brutal days.

The Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in Catalonia while fleeing the Nazis, once wrote that “the construction of history is consecrated to the memory of those who have no name”. While Franco’s body rests as-yet-undisturbed and surrounded by sombre splendour in his tomb in the Valley of the Fallen, beneath him are the unmarked graves of thousands of anonymous soldiers.

Taken in this context, La Model is no longer the fearsome monument to subjugation that it once was. Instead today it exists as a warning from the past, and a mirror to the true face of fascism in Spain. A small, but vital, recognition of the nameless ghosts who haunt its walls.

Paul Gibbins is a freelance journalist, based in Barcelona. Keep up with him on Twitter.