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Political Prisoners in Spain

Political Prisoners In Spain

By Julia Lutsky

Political prisoners exist in every country and every country denies their existence. Spain is no exception. It has seen three distinct waves of modern political prisoners: those who defended the popularly elected Spanish Republican Government against Francisco Franco's 1936-39 rebellion; those who opposed the resulting dictatorship which lasted until the generalissimo's death in 1975; and those who opposed the reforms carried out since that time as nothing more than window dressing.

At the end of 1974 there were about 2,500 Spanish political prisoners whose presence was consistently denied by the Spanish government. Immediately after the death of Franco, ETA (Basque) political prisoners went on a hunger strike to obtain their freedom; the government responded with a limited pardon of some 235 political prisoners and again claimed that since there were no "real" political prisoners there would be no more pardons: all the others were either guilty of common crimes or were terrorists. Most of those freed were reformists, i.e., those who would laud any so-called political reforms; revolutionaries remained behind bars. As a result, amnesty campaigns and petitions on their behalf continued. In 1976 a massive demonstration by some 100,000 people in Bilbao was followed later the same month by the explosion and destruction of more than 40 fascist monuments.

The Spanish government had originally housed political and common, or social, prisoners together to create the impression there were no political prisoners. This policy backfired when, as a result of the amnesty campaigns carried on for political prisoners and their unity in hunger strikes, social prisoners united to form their own group in protest of prison conditions and for a general amnesty. Political prisoners had already formed themselves into communes in order "to maintain a high degree of vigilance without relaxing because to do that allows the prison to devour the prisoner." The communes produced small goods for sale to support the commune itself and to assure that their families not be assessed the cost of their incarceration. In Spain, prisoners receive minimal food of poor quality; those whose families and friends can provide for them do so, those whose families and friends cannot simply survive the best they can. This is also true of prisons in Latin America. A second major objective of the communes was political study and discussion. The Carlos Marx Commune for men at Soria and the Carmen López Commune for women produced many works on political theory. Political prisoners allied themselves in the struggle being waged by the social prisoners bringing their communal experience to the social prisoners.

During 1977 there were more than 50 uprisings by social prisoners, nine of which produced great destruction and fires. The Communist Party of Spain (Reconstituted) [PCE(R)] supported these rebellions and presented a democratically based penal code which it published in the Red Gazette of 15 November 1977. Though the Party maintained a sharp distinction between political and social prisoners, it supported the latter's call for amnesty and for the improvement of prison conditions. The same is true of GRAPO, (Grupos de Resistencia AntiFascista Primero de Octubre) a group practically synonymous with the PCE(R). Together these two clandestine Marxist parties have fought fascism in Spain since the days of the Franco regime. And they have paid a steep price when, during the struggle, their members have been captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed. At the end of 1977 the government was finally forced to issue further pardons, freeing all but the militants involved in bombings, kidnapings and assassinations. At the same time this amnesty was granted, however, the entire Central Committee of the PCE(R) was imprisoned.

The 1979 penal reforms were both swift and not unexpected. They were primarily directed against both the communes formed by the political prisoners and the groups formed by the social prisoners. The most active of the social prisoners were isolated and subjected to the same harassment by guards previously suffered by political prisoners. Packages of food were forbidden; only prison mess was allowed. As a result many prisoners became ill. Electric cattle prods were introduced. Ironically, Spain had abolished the death penalty in a new constitution; as a result, the most active of the political and social prisoners were simply beaten to death by prison guards.

The most innovative of the measures was the introduction of isolation and supermax prisons: As the Director General of the Prisons, Andrés Márquez, said in 1986, "Maximum security is obtained with maximum isolation." Keeping prisoners incommunicado was obtained by replacing galleries with modules. The smaller space brought the entire weight of the penal system to bear on each prisoner. To keep prisoners in such maximum security required the construction of special maximum security prisons in isolated locations so that prisoners would receive no outside stimulus whatsoever. Upon arrival at these new penitentiaries prisoners were greeted by jailers armed with clubs standing in two files. Each new prisoner was required to run between the two files surviving as best he or she could. Here were housed the leading political and social prisoners, subjected to a life based on humiliation: strip searches, nocturnal searches, single file counts and recounts, censorship, walking against the wall with eyes forever cast down, video cameras everywhere. Though the modern use of isolation was introduced in the early 1980s in USP Marion in Illinois, the Pennsylvania system, one of two models in use in the first American prisons of the early 19th century was based on isolation. "[P]risoners served their sentences confined in individual cells, where they ate, worked and slept in isolation... Over the course of their sentence, they were given nothing to read except the Bible and were prevented from corresponding with friends and family..." [The Oxford History of the Prison, ed. by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, 1995, p. 119]

Since combining social and political prisoners had proved disastrous, the government maintained a policy of even more complete segregation; social and political prisoners were confined in separate prisons. A series of hunger strikes erupted in 1978 and 1979 and again in 1980. PCE(R) and GRAPO prisoners in the prison at Herrera de la Mancha demanded better conditions and an end to the beating of prisoners to the point where they needed immediate medical attention including stitches. A massive hunger strike at Herrera in 1981 resulted in forced feeding. Finally, in June of that year, one of the political prisoners, Crespo Gallendo, died.

These strikes were supported by popular protests in the streets to the extent that, faced with Crespo's death, the government was forced to negotiate; in 1983 prisoners were finally moved from Herrera to another prison, Soria, where they were allowed to regroup in communes described above and maintain collective life under reasonably acceptable conditions. This ended in 1987 when the government again undertook a policy under which political prisoners would be dispersed throughout the entire prison system rather than held in separate prisons or sections of prisons. Prisoners responded with another hunger strike in 1989. In spite of a court order forbidding it, forced feeding was again threatened. As a consequence, the doctor primarily responsible for the forced feeding of PCE(R) and GRAPO political prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike was shot and killed in his private office. The strike continued for 14 months into 1991 when the PCE(R) ordered an end to it: Another prisoner, José M. Sevillano, had died of starvation and many others were incapacitated. "Nothing has been obtained from the government, we have lost comrade Sevi and the health of others has been broken. But the state ... has not succeeded in destroying us nor in the demoralization of our imprisoned comrades as they intended." By this time the struggle of the prisoners was known not only in Spain but throughout the world.

More prisons were built, enough to hold 20,000 more prisoners, and a new penal code was devised in 1995. These measures were met by another massive hunger strike. Thus it has been: an escalation of the pressure of prison conditions is met by hunger strikes. Gradually prisoners are released as a result of negotiations to end the strikes. It is an example of resistance that has worked. But at a terrible price. The armed struggles of the PCE(R), GRAPO to overthrow the existing Spanish government, and that of the ETA for Basque independence continue. There are presently approximately 45,000 people in Spanish prisons. Of these about 400 are ETA and another 40 belong to the PCE(R) and GRAPO.

For more information you may contact AFAPP, (Asociación de Familiares y Amigos de los Presos Politícos, Apartado de Correos 15.220, E 28080 Madrid, Spain. The e-mail address is Information on Spanish prisons and prisoners is also available at the following web site: and from

Source:, Universidad Complutense de Madrid - Facultad de Derecho, Texto Crítico

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