The startling reality experienced by inmates in Spanish prisons, as told by a medical student who spent a month interning at one.
I don’t know how to begin writing. I spent a month interning at a prison, and knowing that it’s over makes me feel a strange jumble of emotions. I’m getting a lump in my throat as I write this. The pain that pressures my eyes and knots my throat is mixed with impotence and rage. Previously, I was able to imagine it. Now I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it for myself. Human misery, institutionalized. I suppose it has something to do with what the experience called forth from the deepest part of my being, which I insist on calling “humanity” because I profess the faith of those who think humanity is a principle shared by the entire human race. Although, after everything, now may be the worst time to keep believing that. Humanity arises out of witnessing other people suffer. Humanity torments me with the knowledge that I can do little to alleviate that suffering. Humanity asks how many more must be buried alive in reinforced concrete tombs before this decomposing society understands that barbarism is not a thing of the past, but very much of the present, paid for by our taxes. Like Koma say: “Two years, / Four months and a day, / Justice: / Punishment.” The vengeance that in days gone by was unleashed on the gallows in full view of the people is now reduced to four walls and carried out in the darkness of these “democratic” institutions. But we are not more “civilized.” It’s still vengeance: refined, but in the end irrational.
Professionally, prison turned out to be an interesting place. You almost can’t get bored, as almost nothing is routine. Individuals deprived of liberty in a place as squalid as a penitentiary center lose much more than liberty. They are now typically considered an “at-risk group,” as the epidemiologists say. At risk to suffer from tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis, numerous fungal infections, various gastrointestinal ailments, cancers, drug addictions, injuries, tooth loss, sensory defects, premature aging. At risk to die hanging from a rope, at risk to die from overdose, at risk to bleed to death, at risk to be scarred for life, at risk to lose their minds. At risk to never again see their family and friends, at risk to lose everything they were. At risk to adapt to living a non-life, and never again being able to really feel alive. No, you can’t get bored. There’s plenty of time, plenty of time to think about how to make this worthless place explode.
I saw a twenty-year-old kid on the verge of an attempted ketoacidosic coma, overwhelmed by who knows what kind of personal anguish. I saw people drugged, strung out on benzodiazepenes—prescribed by the doctors themselves—in an attempt to “trim” their sentence, to “steal a few days from the judge.” I saw people who had never been drug addicts hooked on methadone just because the public defender told them that being in the PMM (Methadone Maintenance Program) would reduce the sentence requested by the prosecutor. I saw dozens of broken fifth metacarpal bones caused by an attack of rage, a moment of inevitable clarity that shatters the mind for a second and makes you strike the wall or door of your cell. The doctors here call it venting. My view is that through pain the prisoner frees himself from the alienation suffered by everyone in these death camps, and takes possession of the only thing the state hasn’t stolen from him: his own body. They cut their bodies to make almost any kind of demand, “carving up” their wrists until a doctor comes to stitch them up, and the wound heals but the scar remains. Arms covered by cuts. Full of ugly scars that remind. Remind you of the Trankimazin you weren’t given, the leave you were denied, the transportation that wasn’t requested, the paperwork that never reached its destination. Scars you will never get rid of, no matter how much they heal. Scars that confirm you are not a person, but a prisoner.
“Shit. The tears are coming. Damn this sick world.”
I saw an X-ray of Mohamed’s digestive tract, which showed a battery. A desperate attempt to pressure the “esteemed warden” into requesting a transfer to Ceuta prison, where Mohamed’s relatives could come see him. I saw a guard make a mother who came to visit her son wait behind a gate, five meters from the prison entrance, just to “teach her a lesson.” The guard snidely claimed the woman “rang the bell too much” (there is a bell just outside the prison gates that notifies the guard to open them for visitors once he is certain that no escape attempt is in progress) and “would stay out there a while so she learns.” Cretin.
Doors that only open if the preceding door is closed. Unyielding doors. Made out of metal and security glass. Security, security, security. The jailer sits inside a guard post made out of the same materials and painted the distinctive color of bureaucratic space: yellow. To communicate with him, there is a five-by-ten centimeter pane of glass set between two horizontal metal bars. There are two small holes in the glass, one of which slides open. To speak, you have to bend over, since the hole is at waist level. You thus have to speak with the institution’s representative while kneeling. As the layout of a city—its streets, parks, and squares—reflects the character and culture of its population, the prison layout reflects the prisoner’s submission to the institution, as well as the contempt society has for him.
Prison projects an image that is tough but fair. The stench of sewage that hits you as soon as you get to the parking lot seems to subtly, or not so subtly (you don’t have to be very refined to sense it), foreshadow what is really concealed within. After a few days inside, you soon discover what is hidden behind that revolting exterior (the glass on the upper floors can’t be cleaned because none of the windows open, nor is there a mechanism to open them, so they are covered with the accumulated filth of many years). In fact, the plants and the fountain in the main yard and in the yards of some of the cell blocks make for a pleasant view of the premises. On the other hand, the faces of the inmates, their toothless mouths, their premature wrinkles, their carved up arms, and their “jailhouse” tattoos contradict those first impressions. Of course, blinded by prejudice, few accidental visitors would likely be able to appreciate all this without perceiving it as yet another curiosity in the complex, strange, separate world of prison.
When an inmate—one of the infirmary orderlies (prisoners work at certain posts: laundry, kitchen, cleaning), with whom I was fortunate enough to have contact—returned from his first leave, he mentioned to me: “Man, I didn’t realize how much it’s changed out there.” One more of so many who lose their youth in this meticulously conceived death camp for the human mind, designed in accordance with the following formula: time = work = money. Also, crime ≈ lost money, whi
ch is equivalent to a crime “against society” (better still, against the society imposed on us) and paid for with the loss of liberty for a certain period of time. The most absurd idea, perfectly implanted in people’s minds, devised by the capitalist machinery in its desire to conform the infinite nuances of human life to the gold standard. That’s why the rich man strolls right past prison, while the poor man “pays the hard way” (a prison expression referring to the years of a sentence served without setting foot on the outside, without leave, grade three, or conditional liberty, which is quite common since these privileges can be revoked for many years via a mere disciplinary report that can be given for almost anything) with a lengthy sentence. That’s why, among other things, three-quarters of the prison population doesn’t make more than minimum wage. (Ministry of the Interior data from two years ago. I just checked the Web site, and they’ve changed it. The salary statistics search is no longer there. Corrupt state. Bastard politicians.)
Today I remembered a revealing incident. An inmate was complaining about swelling in his hand. Two days earlier, he had made an emergency visit to the infirmary wing, stoned on “benzo” (dazed; presenting slight miosis and hypersensitivity to direct, bright light; and talking as if he had a speech defect, without pronouncing the letter “r” properly), with swelling in his right hand and pain in his fifth metacarpal bone (he had punched his cell door). X-rays didn’t show a break, so he was given anti-inflammatories and his finger was put in a Prim splint (the kind that have padding on one side and aluminum on the other, of course prohibited in prison—like almost everything—because of security, although that doesn’t mean shit to the doctors). Now, during exam hours in his cell block (block five), he shows up with swelling in his hand and threatens to report the doctor for not wanting to treat him immediately. (This doctor’s usual protocol is that inmates who don’t sign up for the weekly exam in their cell block are treated at the end, when those who signed up in advance are finished. This allows only certain things to be treated, since the patient’s chart is not in his cell block but back at the infirmary because he didn’t register in advance, or because the guard either didn’t feel like registering him or forgot to.) The doctor finally offers to treat him, but the prisoner insists that he is going to report the doctor and asks for his full name. The doctor says he has the right to withhold his full name, but he gives his penitentiary identification number, which is enough for the report. The prisoner goes away. On the way back from the cell block to the infirmary, the doctor tells me that things in cell block five are a mess (it seems some of the inmates were getting organized and had come into the possession of several “shanks”) and that it’s better to not go on the attack because—among other things—the inmates are making weapons out of the aluminum from their splints. Now back in the infirmary, in the middle of an exam, a guard from cell block five shows up. He tells the doctor: “I have to mention this. Did you know that an inmate from my cell block filed a report on you?” The doctor answers: “Yes, yes, let him do what he wants. He has every right.” The guard replies: “No, it was just in case you wanted to file a report on him or something.” The doctor, writing distractedly in a chart, gestures with his hand for the guard to go away. All very fair. Who said anything about abuse?
Like when the solitary wing calls: “Two inmates were fighting.” The doctor shows up and there are actually four injured. The solitary wing, as the name indicates, contains prisoners who are classified as grade one (they live in isolation cells and have a separate yard and visiting hours) and prisoners who are being disciplined for various reasons (article 108 of the 1996 Penitentiary Regulations). The latter also live alone in isolation cells, theoretically for a maximum of fourteen days. How could four guys being disciplined in solitary have been fighting if they go out to the yard alone and spend the rest of the day in individual cells with forged iron doors that are five centimeters thick? Magic? No, penitentiary institutions. The eight guards who are in the wing to watch a maximum of twenty prisoners, with the best security measures and cameras all over the place, certainly had nothing to do with it. The strange thing is that the solitary wing—a real cement rat-hole—has a nonslip floor. Security concerns won’t allow a guard’s shoes to slip up when he’s “forced” to restrain a savage convict.
I saw an entire cell block, with a capacity of between 120 and 140 prisoners (block twelve), packed with the mentally ill. Illegal, completely illegal. Someone who is mentally ill should not be in prison, and the law says so. But illegality doesn’t matter to anyone here, much less when it’s socially justified by framing the question: “And if not, what do we do, set them free so they can attack or kill someone again?”
In prison, everything runs on shady deals. Among prisoners, but also among the administration. A document, a petition, a transfer request, an article 196 application (medical release) can take a half-hour, several hours, or three months to process. It all depends on whom you know, who owes you a favor, and who has it in for you. Sometimes these “little things” are misplaced—you know how it is—or accidentally wind up falling into a paper shredder in some office. These things happen.
I could continue to relate all the many paradoxes of this institution of justice and rehabilitation (prison rehabilitation: you enter and you leave, and you enter again and you leave, and you enter again, and so on until you die—according to 2008 data from the Ministry of the Interior, the recidivism rate is 60%), but I don’t want to end this document without mentioning the tragedy on the outside: the tragedy of the families, who serve the same sentence as the convict. At the entrance one morning, before they confirmed there was an order allowing me to enter the prison until a certain day to do my internship, I met a mother who had come from Alicante to visit her son. A fifteen-year sentence. She takes a bus ride from her homeland that lasts more than five hours. She gets to the penitentiary at around 6:30 a.m. for an 11:00 a.m. visit. At 8:00 a.m. (if she’s very lucky), the prison gates open, and she takes shelter from the morning cold. In the cafeteria, there is no one to serve her. It was closed because it wasn’t profitable. Too few customers. Sorry-looking vending machines substitute for actual service. She enters, and there she stays. Another 500 kilometers now lie between her and her return home, just so she can spend an hour-and-a-half with her son. All very humane, very humane.
Yet another prisoners’ “right” violated by the theft of their liberty.
A guard tells the doctor: “This one, this one is asking for a fix. He’ll just wind up drooling all over himself.” He’s referring to an agitated and rather aggressive prisoner whom I had personally treated, and who was now in the infirmary again. He had been in three different cells (the prison slang is chabolo), and in all three he had wound up getting into fights. They didn’t know where to put him. In cases like this, the doctor sometimes attributes the behavior to a psychiatric disorder and prescribes an “aguacate” (slang for Modecate, an injectable, long-lasting—several weeks—depot antipsychotic that has a very strong sedative effect, certainly the strongest among this particular class of antipsychotic). This often leads to drooling.
Death by overdose. The prisoner was examined just days earlier, suffering from a urinary tract infection. On the night in question, he complained to the guard that he couldn’t sleep. (In the cell blocks, the heat is unbearable. Prisoners who have a peculio—which is what an inmate’s bank account is called, since it is subject to special conditions and must be with Banco Satan-der, of course—buy electric fans. Sometimes they just endure it. There is air conditioning in all the cell blocks, but it’s never on—you know, to avoid pollution while saving some money, thus allowing them to hire more rehabilitating guards.) He also said he was going to take more medication. (Upon entering prison, the consumption of benzodiazepene tranquilizers—Trankimazin, Lexatin, Tranxilium, Rivotril, Valium, Sedotime, Noctamid, Dormicum—is the norm in order to overcome “adjustment problems.” They are often taken for the entire stay, whether needed or not.) The guard said that at 7:00 a.m. he heard the prisoner snoring. What he really heard was the prisoner’s death spasms, fading until he passed away. At around 8:00 a.m., when the doctor was called because the prisoner wasn’t present during rounds, he was already stiff, tucked away in his bunk, burning up. The thermometer was incapable of measuring the temperature of his lifeless body, which means it was likely 43ºC (109.4ºF) or higher. Thirteen have already gone this year. Too much heat, too much heat in the chabolo. Too much prison.
Everyone treated me well there. The doctors, the prisoners, and almost all the guards. I hope to print this document and be able to send it to the inmates I knew. They taught me a lot, sometimes to the point of making me doubt they were really suffering, with their jokes, their braggadocio, and their cheerfulness. Human beings are marvelous, so capable of adapting to demented situations that it almost seems they aren’t suffering. But that’s not true. They suffer. They suffer, and cry, and get sick, and feel. And they bite their knuckles to avoid breaking their fifth metacarpal bones. And they lose their lives, like the rest of those who are locked up. It slips away between the bars. They sit and wait on the other side of a revolving door that I can go through, but they can’t. A fucking door. Just a door. And they are disciplined, and their minds adapt to that mix of barracks and high-school discipline so they don’t die, so they don’t switch off and wind up mentally handicapped, like so many others in this black hole. And they occupy their minds with trivial, passing things, absorbed in their work as orderlies or in poker games betting on cigarettes (a real privilege where they are), so they don’t flip out too much. And they strive to maintain relationships on the outside, which they very well know can’t last long. Oh yes, human beings are marvelous And they will remain locked up. They are whom the system and society label as prisoners. Killers, murderers, butchers, abusers, thieves, grifters, pushers. Labels that put a price on their lives, on the rest of their lives. Criminals? I could digress about that concept (just ask Foucault). I will only say what I have been able to confirm for myself, like everything I have written so far: They are people. They could be my cousin, my brother, my father, my aunt. They could be me. They could be any one of my childhood friends. They could be my worst enemies. Neither better nor worse than anyone else. Punished. Trapped. Caged.
But I will learn how to make dynamite. To begin with, they already taught me the recipe for black powder. All in good time (a young anarchist’s fervor).
I watch time pass,
Tearing away my youth,
My concrete coffin.
Drifting through oblivion,
Carrying torment within,
No witnesses to my screams.
Treated like a beast,
My dignity trampled,
In the punishment cell,
I’m beaten like an animal,
Beatings I no longer feel,
I can’t stop shaking,
Electrodes tear at my body,
I just pissed myself.
Once called jailer,
Loyal dog closely watching,
The keys to hell,
Hell for the poor,
Paradise for the rich,
Money is what counts,
More than the crime.
We live in a system,
They call civilized,
It condemns its mistakes,
To human cages.
And these democrats,
Say they condemn terrorism,
In the name of human rights.
We watch time pass,
Tearing away the youth,
Of millions of prisoners,
Tomorrow it could be you.
We watch time pass,
Tearing away our youth,
Another howl now dies out,
In this coffin’s silence.
Once called jailer,
Loyal dog closely watching,
The keys to hell,
Hell for the poor,
Paradise for the rich,
Money is what counts,
More than the crime.
(Christ’s Dead [Los Muertos De Cristo], “Silent Screams II” [“Los Gritos Del Silencio II”])
PS: Maybe the text should be in a different order. I wrote it down just the way it came out of me.
Against all forms of authority.
Solidarity, self-management, and action. Death to the state, and long live anarchy. Take care of yourselves. Down with the prison walls! —An irreverent, on Andalusian soil, in the early hours of August 13, 2010