“All of Spain was a prison”: Female prisons under Franco

During the Civil War (1936-1939) and the Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975), prisons across Spain housed thousands of women for (suspected) political dissent.


Map of some of the womens’ prisons in Spain under Franco

Franco’s prisons were typically single-sex institutions. Although some were equipped with facilities such as individual cells, bathrooms and showers, and even, in the case of Ventas, a library, these facilities were infrequently usable. Rather, the entire prison building served as an extended site for housing the so-called delinquent Red Whores.

Les Corts Prison.  From http://www.presodelescorts.org

Les Corts Prison.
From http://www.presodelescorts.org

Many of the buildings used as prisons and detention centres were former schools, convents, and monasteries, such as the former convent Les Corts in Barcelona. These were transformed into sites of extreme discipline and punishment by the widespread need for locations to house suspected dissenting subjects, who were arresting in their thousands.

Saturraran Prison

Saturraran Prison

On account of such a vast level of incarceration, the prisons were made even more desolate due to extreme overcrowding: prisoner narratives cite cases of twelve prisoners sharing a single cell designed for one person (Cuevas, 2005: 84) and prisons built for 500 inmates holding 12,000-14,000 (Mangini, 1991: 182). Imprisonment was thus inherently communal with the women living together in close quarters constantly.

Overcrowding and the continual arrival of more inmates meant that prisoners were frequently moved between institutions. This also served to break up the political groups that formed amongst the community of prisoners. Consequently, for many women, their prison sentences constituted a tour of Spain’s detention centres. Nevertheless, the experience across these different jails remained the same, as prison testimonies affirm: ‘it was the same as Ventas, the same as Malaga, the same as Barcelona’ (Real, 1982: 165).

Segovia Prison

Segovia Prison

Moreover, carceral space extended beyond the very prison walls. In moving between institutions, the women were often paraded through the street as social spectacles of delinquency and horror. These ‘purge parades’ saw inmates with shaved heads, stripped naked, force fed the laxative castor oil, and lead through town centres and city squares on the back of a mule in grotesque displays of female criminality and punishment. Even after their release, ex-inmates were subject to social denigration and the constant threat of being denounced to the Civil Guard for anti-State activities.

As writer and ex-prisoner Carlota O’Neill declares, all of Spain really was ‘a prison’ (2006: 225).


Photographs found on other blogs.

More photographs from some these prisons can be found on my pinterest, here.

Texts cited:

Cuevas, Tomasa. (2005). Presas. Barcelona: Icaria.

Mangini, Shirley. (1991). ‘Memories of Resistance’. Signs 17, 171-186.

O’Neill, Carlota. (2006). Una mujer en la guerra de España. Barcelona: Oberon.

Real, Soledad. (1982). Las cárceles de Soledad Real. Madrid: Alfaguara.


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