The Curious History of Barcelona's Most Infamous Prison

El Modelo prison © Generalitat de Catalunya
El Modelo prison © Generalitat de Catalunya
No prison is ever very popular, but the Modelo prison in Barcelona has a particularly infamous past. Hailed as a symbol of reform and progress when it opened, in its lifetime it became a symbol of political and ideological oppression. Having closed its doors permanently in June 2017, even now it remains a thorn in Barcelona’s side.

It’s not every day that people would queue to enter a prison, yet between the months of July and November 2017 the Modelo prison in Barcelona saw hundreds of visitors pass through its doors. Inaugurated on June 9, 1904, the Modelo was permanently closed down on June 8, 2017 – a day before its 113th anniversary.

During its lifetime, the prison became one of Spain’s most infamous and controversial, owing in great part to its role during the Franco dictatorship. In fact, according to one historian, the prison has been ‘the mirror of the social and political conflicts of Catalonia in the 20th century’.

Inside one of the galleries © Canaan

A visionary design

If the prison got the name El Modelo – ‘The Model’ – it’s not by coincidence. At the time of its creation at the turn of the 20th century, it was to be a symbol of penitentiary reform: it contained rooms for exercise, reading, visitors and even had a barbers on site.

The prison was the design of Catalan architects Salvador Viñals and the Josep Domènech i Estapà, also behind Barcelona’s Cosmo Caixa building and the Palace of Justice. Contemporaries of the famous architect Antoni Gaudí, they too were champions of Catalan Modernism. In fact, the prison is striking for its elegance and symmetry, at first glance looking quite at home alongside the grand town houses of the Eixample.

However, it owes its design as much to the architectural taste of the moment to the visionary work of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In the 18th century, Bentham proposed a revolutionary design known as the panopticon: a building in which all prisoners could be observed by one guardsmen – crucially, without the inmates even being able to tell if the guard is watching. The Modelo prison embodies the principles of the panopticon, with a large central tower overlooking six galleries and interior courtyards.

The panopticon tower © Canaan

A controversial past

Yet if the Modelo prison is famous today it’s not so much for its visionary design and promising origins, as its somewhat controversial role during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. In fact, the prison at times has held both supporters and opponents of the Franco regime.

In the early days of the civil war, the prison was seized by local anarchists who released all the prisoners and left the prison empty. However it was soon after used to incarcerate supporters of Franco’s coup, which at least initially had failed in Barcelona. The prison, designed to house some 800 inmates, reached a peak occupancy of over 13,000 inmates during the conflict.

Image from the Spanish Civil War © Cassowary Colorizations

When the civil war ended and Franco took control of the country he also seized the Modelo prison and released his supporters. Some would go one to hold important positions in his government. Crucially, the prison became a place of detention for political opponents, trade unionists and anarchists, but also homosexuals who were persecuted during the dictatorship.

The Modelo prison has counted among its inmates some leading figures of Catalan society such as the former president of the Catalonia, Lluís Companys, who was later executed by firing squad at Montjuïc castle.

Letting go of the past

It’s easy to see what the Modelo ultimately became and unwanted symbol and reminder of Barcelona’s troubled past. Add to that the fact that in the late seventies and early eighties the prison was blighted by overcrowding, ongoing riots and even grappled with a heroin epidemic.

Calls were soon made for the prison to close but it would take another forty years for the Modelo to finally close its doors. It’s perhaps unsurprising that so many of Barcelona’s residents were curious to see inside the building which had been at the centre of so much of the city’s history.

A new green space opened alongside the prison in 2015 © JosepBC