La cárcel de Carabanchel, Europe’s biggest and most notorious prison until its closure in 1998, was built under General Franco’s watch. Between 1940 and 1944, every wall was raised and every metal door was fitted by the same prisoners who would eventually do their time here. None dared lay a brick loosely or leave a screw untightened – this prison was a star-shaped fortress, and nobody was escaping.
A GHOST OF SPAIN
During the prison’s relatively short lifespan of 55 years, it saw thousands of inmates walk in, but fewer walk out. There was torture, abuse, accidental deaths and numerous executions. If you were taken to Carabanchel prison as a political prisoner, a trade unionist, a terrorist or a homosexual, you were in for a rough ride.
It was a truly awful corner of Madrid that still haunts Spain to this day. At the time of its decommissioning in 1998, the around 2,000 men and 500 women detained there were transferred to surrounding prisons. The building was then heavily looted – its railings, doors and all accessible scrap metal were taken – and for 10 years la cárcel de Carabanchel stood abandoned.
THE CITY OF MISFITS
This prison may have been officially abandoned, but it wasn’t empty. Forgotten groups of society saw it as a roof over their heads and moved in. Drug addicts, poverty-stricken people, unwanted immigrants and ex-offenders made these cells their home. Many artists also took up residence here – for them, the walls that held a thousand untold stories were a canvas for something new. Carabanchel prison was given a new lease of life as the city of misfits.
THE CONTROVERSIAL DEMOLITION
Spain is notorious for burying its dark past – they call it ‘the pact of silence’. After Franco’s death, those in power ordered shrapnel scars to be plastered over, records to be wiped, and voices to be silenced. But one ghost of Spain – a colossal reminder of the country’s uncomfortable past – straddled the city’s skyline all the way until 2008.
Not everyone accepts the pact of silence, though. There’s a growing movement to remember the forgotten, exhume the buried and recount the untold stories. Local residents, historians, and family of former convicts fought for the central dome of this prison to be preserved. They wanted it to at least be converted into a theatre or library, or reused in some other way, in order to preserve a part of Spain’s most infamous prison.
In 2008, on the cusp of the financial crisis, 10 years of discussions and protests over the fate of this decaying fortress came to an end and, to people’s horror, demolition began.
The whole building was torn down, and only one small part remains: the former entrance. You can still go and see it on the north-west corner of the site, directly opposite Madrid’s immigrant detention centre.
A modest, miniature memorial made of red bricks and cement, just like the original Carabanchel prison, can also be found on the grounds of the demolished prison.
It was apparently demolished to make way for new houses, a school, a theatre and a library, but the site of this former prison remains a vast, empty wasteland. To this day, protesters continue to gather en masse to express outrage at the poorly thought-out demolition of la cárcel de Carabanchel.
Even under the illusion that the prison walls might once have been able to speak, they now no longer exist. However, I did stumble across one story, which was documented by a falsely imprisoned American by the name of C. Michael Bennit.
One afternoon, Bennit went to have his beard shaved in prison, and that’s where he met Pablo, the barber.
Pablo is from a small village. He was a happy man with a childhood sweetheart. They planned to wed. One day, the village tough guy violated Pablo’s girl when she walked home from school. Her face was beaten and bruised, and she sobbed in Pablo’s arms. She begged Pablo to forgive her. She had tried to fight…
A week later, the tough guy came into the barbershop where Pablo worked. He specifically requested a shave from Pablo. They still talk about it in the village. How Pablo slit the man’s throat, right where the thyroid protrudes. Zzzip the neck was severed and Pablo held the man’s face to watch his own death in the mirror, as the blood spurted everywhere before the dying man’s eyes!”
C. Michael Bennit served unjust time in Carabanchel prison in 1964. He never knew why he was there, yet somehow it’s an experience he doesn’t regret.
A physical connection to the past helps us preserve memories, especially when those who possess the first-hand accounts pass away. Stories can be told and repeated, and photographs seen, but it’s not the same as standing inside that very same building or being able to touch a shrapnel scar.
With a physical link to the past, it’s easier to close your eyes and hear the voices of those who can no longer speak, and this matters because it helps keep us at least one step away from ever making the same mistakes again.