Carabanchel Prison

Carabanchel Prison

by Mary Schrack


Carabanchel Prison was built on the outskirts of Madrid during the first years of the Franco dictatorship. Inaugurated in 1944, its purpose was to remove political prisoners from the Porlier prison in Madrid´s downtown center. It include a women’s prison, children’s center and hospital. Built by Franco’s political prisoners, Carabanchel Prison was designed as a star with 8 arms “radiating out of an eye that never closed.”  The prison was designed so that each prisoner would feel like s/he was being watched at all times. It could hold up to two thousand inmates which included political prisoners, as well as petty criminals like pickpockets, and homosexuals.

carabanchel prisonDemolished October 2008 in the middle of the night, so as not to attract protesters against its destruction, the prison remains a controversial subject always present in conversations about the memory of the Franco dictatorship. There are debates over how the new space should be utilized; its use as a new hospital; a recreational center; or a municipal building are among the ideas that have been proposed by civic organizations and neighborhood associations.

One might ask why the neighborhood of Carabanchel is so involved in plans for the old site of the prison. It may seem strange that the people would oppose demolishing a symbol of Franco’s repression, but somewhere along the way, Carabanchel prison transformed in the eyes of the community from a place of repression to a place of commemorative memory. They want to keep this memory alive.

Field Notes

Today, we met with Carmen Ortiz, an expert on Carabanchel prison. This prison, built in 1940, was made to house nearly 2 thousand Republican prisoners. Shaped like an eight-pronged star with a cupola in the center, Carabanchel’s architecture was supposed to make the prisoners feel like they were being watched at all times. And under the reign of Francisco Franco, they were. Many prisoners were killed here, young and old alike.After it stopped being in use, the people of the surrounding neighborhood took a great interest in the prison. They covered it with graffiti, like a rendition of Picasso’s Guernica, and went inside to look around. It was an important part of the neightborhood because the prison was an important part of the people’s history. Many of them had family in Carabanchel, or could see the goings-on in the prison yard from the street. Their attachment to this prison was so great that the government had to tear it down in the middle of the night so no one could protest.Now, all that remains of Carabanchel is an empty lot. Kids of the neighborhood play sports in the space, and the people walk by and remember what it looked like that what it stood for. The government is trying to come up with a plan for what to do with the lot. Something to commemorate the prison and the prisoners that suffered there has to be built. Some ideas are that it should be a cultural space for the inhabitants of the zone, some say it should be a hospital. For right now, however, it remains an empty lot to the eye, but in the minds of the people, it is filled with the memory of those oppressed by the reign of Francisco Franco.

Carabanchel Today

Carabanchel was once a symbol of Franco’s repression. But somewhere along the way, the prison was transformed into a symbol of survival, of sustainability, of endurance. The working class neighborhood surrounding Carabanchel was subject to Franco’s regime, suffering punishments and mandates from the General. During the war, and the years after, the people in the area watched as lines formed of people waiting to visit their family inside. And as the years passed, those lines became queues of 21st century immigrants waiting to legalize their status. As the times changed, the neighborhood and the prison itself changed.

When the prison closed in 1944, it served as housing for other activities. Carabanchel was put to use by marginal groups, graffiti artists, and other residents of the surrounding town. The graffiti at the site was an integral part of its structure, sustaining a dialogue, an emotional link, with the former prison. There was even a rendition of Picasso’s Guernica on one of the walls reading “for a world without bars.” Through its use as a palette for graffiti artists, Carabanchel became an exhibition for the townspeople’s connection to the prison as well as a testament to their perseverance throughout the years of the dictatorship.

When the building was abandoned, its place in history and the collective memory still lived on in the ruins that remained, physical spaces which allowed a visitor to follow the same path as the prisoner did throughout the course of a day. One could walk the same hallways, enter the same mess hall, stand in the same cell. The connection was still alive between Carabanchel and the memory of postwar repression and survival. But when the prison was destroyed in 2008, that “memory site” was in grave danger of being forgotten.

But the people fought. They demanded that the site of Carabanchel be used for social purposes for the betterment of the community, such as a hospital or municipal buildings.  The government is now working with local activists to build a structure to serve the community.  Soon, the site of the prison, the symbolic object of Spain’s recent memory, will become a symbol of hope instead of dictatorship, of sustainability instead of authority. The new building on the site of Carabanchel will be the source through which memory of the war and years afterward flow.

In The News

Carabanchel Prison on the Front Pages