Ventas Women’s Prison: ‘A Warehouse of Women’

Ventas Women’s Prison (Madrid)

One of the most formidable Francoist prisons, and one of five women’s prisons in the capital, Ventas was built in 1931 in the Ventas area of Madrid on Marqués de Mondéjas street, under the direction of Director General of Prisons, Victoria Kent.

Victoria Kent. Lawyer and member of parliament for the Radical Socialist Republican Party

Victoria Kent. Lawyer and member of parliament for the Radical Socialist Republican Party

Kent (1898 – 1987) was a lawyer and Republican politician. She was elected to parliament in 1931, and later that year was appointed as Director General of Prisons. In this position she was responsible for developing the radical prison reforms that had begun during the nineteenth century under Concepción Arenal. Kent sought to re-establish the notion of incarceration as based on the rehabilitation and re-education of the inmate for survival within society, rather than the sites of punishment and brutality they had been. As a part of this project, Kent closed many prisons famous for degradation and awful conditions, and opened new institution.

One of her new developments, Ventas was constructed based on these notions centred on the prisoner as an individual member of society: it was a light and airy edifice that contained individual cells to room 500 women. It also boasted many facilities previously unseen in Spain’s prisons, including classrooms, pavilions, patios, workshops, and an infirmary.

During the Civil War when Francoist forces began taking over Spain and the country was overrun with prisoners, Ventas began to change and the site of modern imprisonment it had represented was eradicated by severe overcrowding and the destruction of its facilities. The prison was transformed into an institution housing thousands of women for political deviance in brutal conditions. Prison testimonies by former inmates describe the horror Ventas held for female political prisoners during the war and the dictatorship that ensued.

Ventas era un edificio nuevo e incluso alegre. Ladrillos rojos, paredes encaladas. Seis galerías de veinticinco celdas invidivuales, ventanas grandes (con rejas, desde luego), y en cada galeria un amplio departamento con lavabos, duchas y waters. Talleres, escuela, almacenes en el sótano, dos enfermerías y un gran salon de actos transformado inmediatamente en capilla. En cada celda hubo – según dicen -, una cama, un pequeño armario, una mesa y una silla. En 1939 había once o doce mujeres en cada celda absolutamente desnuda, a lo sumo los colchones o los jergones de cada una y nada más. Todo vestigio de la primitiva dedicación de las salas había desaparecido, se había transformado en un gigantesco almacén: almacén de mujeres. (Cuevas, 2005: 84)

[Ventas was a new, even happy building. Red bricks, whitewashed walls. Six wings of 25 individual cells, large windows (with bars, of course), and, in each wing, a large department with sinks, showers, and toilets. There was a workshop, school, storerooms in the basement, two sick bays, and a large assembly hall, which was immediately converted into a chapel. In each cell there was – or so they say – a bed, a small wardrobe, a table, and a chair. In 1939, there were 11 or 12 women in each cell, completely naked, with, at the best, mattresses for each one, and nothing else. Every vestige of the prior function of the rooms had disappeared, and it had been transformed into a gigantic warehouse, a warehouse of women.]

The women’s prison was thus transformed into a centre of horror by the sheer overcrowding. As Shirley Mangini comments, after the war, Ventas was said to have held ten to fourteen thousand women (Mangini, 1991: 182). The corridors and hallways became makeshift dormitories with women sleeping on the floor; the bathrooms blocked by the volume of women using them; the facilities deconstructed in favour of punishment. Amongst the thousands of women who passed through the doors were Tomasa Cuevas, the ’13 Roses’, Juana Doña, Soledad Real, and Ángeles García-Madrid.

Ventas Prison. Image from google search.

Ventas Prison. Image from google search.

Demolished in 1967 to make way for apartments, today no sign remains of the former site of torture, horror, and oppression.

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Sources consulted in constructing this information:

Camarasa, Vicente. ‘LA CÁRCEL DE MUJERES DE VENTAS. De la República al franquismo.’ Biombo Histórico. 18/02/2014

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

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

Torrús, Alejandro. ‘El mapa de torturas de Madrid del franquismo.’ Público. 17/10/2013. 

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