Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel

Tree lined corridors and green lawns; swimming pools and squash courts; but this is not suburbia, this is Madrid VI prison. I know very little about the Spain’s prison system. In fact, the only time it has featured on Prison Photography was as it related to Mathieu Pernot ‘s photographs of family screaming over the walls of a Barcelona jail. It would be speculation to wonder if Gunnar Knechtel’s series Madrid (2004) depicts the world into which Pernot’s subjects howled. Instead I, and we, shall reply upon the information provided by COLORS Magazine Issue 50:

“Madrid VI prison (opened 1998) is staffed not by guards but by funcionarios, unarmed civilian servants with college degrees. It’s part of a prison culture that according to one funcionario aims to foster “a certain level of mutual respect and trust” between inmates and staff.”

To American eyes, Knechtel ‘s photography may appear to describe something other than a prison. The human-scale of the design contrasts the dominant modes of American incarceration, especially the dehumanizing Supermax.

Where it makes no effect on function, recently-constructed Spanish prison design includes manipulation of colour, sight-lines and landscaping to lessen the psychological impact of these confined spaces. But more than that, Spanish prisons – as depicted here by Knechtel – provide health and recreational facilities to nurture humanity. No more is this nurturing in evidence than in the prisons’ policies toward family and reproduction.

“A [prison reform] law – the new Spanish parliament’s first piece of legislation – was passed in 1979. It guaranteed prisoners all their civil rights, withholding only their freedom of movement.” Other improvements include monthly family visits in private rooms, as well as conjugal visits with spouses, partners, or even prostitutes is specially designated bedrooms. In the mixed prisons, male and female inmates are allowed to begin relationships and if the prison director agrees can meet and use private rooms as an official couple. Homosexual relationships are also permitted.”

Since 1979, Spain has built 57 prisons that adhere to these standards; each one at an average cost of $42 million. The focus on conditions came about following the demise of Franco‘s Fascist regime (Franco died in 1975, but a new constitution was not passed into law until 1978.) During the dictatorship, many politicians were held in Spanish prisons overseen by Franco’s notorious military police. When these men and women returned to the legislature, prison reform was a top priority.

Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel

Many U.S. prisons with stable populations allow for conjugal visits (“trailer visits”) as an earned privilege for prisoners. For prisoners fortunate enough to have the option, trailer visits provide invaluable human contact; a type of contact that is never forthcoming in dominant prison culture. And this applies to all types of contact, from time with a sexual partner to a weekend with the extended family. Trailers in U.S. prisons are beyond the body of the prison proper, often in a self-contained secure spaces; architectural afterthoughts. By contrast, in Spain the philosophy of the family has shaped the spatial fabric of many prisons.

In terms of child-rearing, there are a handful of pioneer facilities in the  U.S. Three of these facilities have been documented by three conscientious female photographers – Cheryl Hanna Truscott at the Residential Parenting Program, at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW); Angela Shoemaker at Prison Nursery at Ohio Reformatory for Women, Marysville, Ohio; and Neelakshi Vidyalankara at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, the largest maximum security women’s prison in New York state.

In the U.S., at those rare Mother Units, law allows mothers to keep their newborn babies with them until 18-24 months. In Spain, the age is 3 years. From the same issue of COLORS, a mother describes her dilemma:

“My daughter turns three in a couple of months and it’s difficult for me to be separated from her. She’s been with me since she’s been a baby but I can already see that she needs something different. When they take her on excursions to the zoo or to the mountains, I see that she’s really happy. She knows that she has to ask permission for everything; she knows that there are people in charge. She says, “Mommy, tell the lady to open the patio door”, and she knows that she has to respect those in charge.”

No one would want to argue a child should remain with its parent in a state of suspended freedom indefinitely, but discussion about the legal age limit to which they remain together is valuable.

Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel

Whether it two years or three years, the eventual separation of mother and child, or mother and father from child can only be a gut-wrenching unbearable event. Having said that, any parent would surely bear such pain in return for the pleasure of bonding with their children over even the shortest time-span.

Social psychology has shown the most significant bonds and rapid cognitive development occurs in the baby’s earliest months and years. As such, the benefit to mother and child cannot be denied.

The U.S. prison system does not provide the type of Family Unit deicted by Knechtel in which incarcerated parents can (if approved) raise a child jointly. Spain has actualised one of the most progressive penological practices by including the father within a more complex understanding of family. The needs of children are often the same as the needs of the parent.

Knechtel’s photographs are by no means extraordinary, but as with most prison photography projects, it’s the debate about the unseen world they give rise to, that defines their worth. The ambiguity of prison architecture punctuated by soft furnishings and children’s toys fairly reflects the conflicted reality for parents behind bars.

Gunnar Knechtel’s website:

Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel


Thanks oncemore to Aline Smithson who transcribed. This is our second collaboration done in the interets of shared learning and proof that the photo-blogging community is alive, strong and charitable. Part one: A Visit to ER: Thoughts on Torture, Invisible [War] Crimes and X-Ray Imaging as Evidence. Below is a photograph of Aline’s feet from her portfolio Self-portraits.