Picassent, a Mixed Prison Wing

Marie Claire  London, 1994, 2,000 words; adapted extracts  

Europe's first mixed prison wing was set up in Picassent, just south of Valencia city. To write this article I spent a day there with photographer Veronica Janssen. The claustrophobia of prison life closed in on us in just a few hours - it was humbling to see how the prisoners dealt with it.

Also see: The Ballads of Cordoba Gaol

It is late afternoon in Modulo 4 of Valencia's Picassent prison, and a boy slips out of a girl's cell in his towelling dressing gown. He strolls past a group of prisoners chatting in the bare cement corridor. Nobody bothers to turn and look.

Modulo 4, the first mixed closed prison wing in Europe, was set up when Picassent opened as a brand new purpose-built prison in 1990. Today it has 21 women among the 50 inmates. Each has their own cell, but men and women share the cafeteria, sports courtyard, TV room, gym and showers.

Today the wing is seen by the prison authorities as a success and an essential if small step forward in realizing Spainís penal code, which insists on re-education....

When the experiment was first suggested by local prison staff, it was met with scepticism. Today, the wing is seen by the prison authorities as a success, and as an essential if small step forward in realising the 1979 penal code, which insists on re-education rather than punishment. Spain's entire prison population - currently 45,000, but rapidly rising, with thirteen per cent of women - now receives training or teaching of some kind. That, in turn, makes mixing male and female prisoners a useful practicality - and, perhaps, a desirable one. That is what the mixed wing at Picassent was set up to find out.

SCEPTICISM & STEREOTYPING

Many of the essential hallmarks of prison life remain intact in Modulo 4. Each shoebox-sized cell has a narrow foam mattress on a cement base, just one small barred window and a heavy metal door. Cells are locked twice a day, with the prisoners inside, to check everyone is there, and again at 10pm for the night. There are subtler controls too. Inmates must sign a contract when they arrive; in it they agree to have no contact with drugs.

Mercedes Jabardo, director of Spanish prisons and prime mover of the wing, comments on the criticism the project initially received. "People on the outside who didn't really know what we were doing suggested we were looking for sexual relationships," she comments. Two or three men with wives in Picassent's women's wing even tried to get the wing closed down for fear their wives would be transferred there.

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