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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.

Front cover

COLORS magazine first fell onto my radar last year when reviewing Broomberg & Chanarin’s work. It cropped up again in March when I delved into Stefan Ruiz’s early career. All three were creative directors in COLORS continually rotating roster of aesthetic leadership.

Based in the north Italian town of Treviso, COLORS is part of the publishing activity of Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research centre. Benetton’s searing brand-making hit my young retinas with its controversial United Colours of Benetton (billboard) ad campaign of the early nineties.

Besides Saatchi and Saatchi, Benetton was the only time in my childhood I was aware of the names behind billboard products. That is an assumed level of cultural penetration, but I’m working from precious memory too much to determine its significance.

[As an aside, Enrico Bossan Head of Photography at Fabrica and Director of COLORS Magazine was co-curator for the 2011 New York Photo Festival. He also founded in 2010, which delivers without no-nonsense video interviews with photographers.]

The 50th edition of COLORS (June 2002) focused specifically on prisons. From the introduction:

With over eight million people held in penal institutions the prison population is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. In the United States, a country which holds 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the world population, prisons are now the fastest growing category of housing in the country.

For COLORS 50 we have visited 14 prisons in 14 countries and asked a difficult question: Is it possible to rehabilitate a person back into society by excluding them from it? We spoke to murders, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers, thieves, frauds, drug dealers, pick pockets, high-jackers and prison wardens. In most cases the stories we heard confirm one thing. That prison does not work. In COLORS 50 we ask the inmates themselves to suggest alternatives.

The magazine is 90 pages of portraits and interior landscapes. I came to this collection of work late (in my research here at Prison Photography) and in many ways it challenges many of my former presumptions. This edition is a precursor to the “VICE-aesthetic” celebrating the battered and broken, and I’d be happy to dismiss it if it weren’t for the long-form statements made by the prisoners, which are printed with care and without censorship.

The issue includes bodies of work by photographers I was previously unaware of including Juliana Stein, Vesselina Nikolaeva, James Mollison, Charlotte Oestervang, Suhaib Salem, Federica Palmarin, Mattia Zoppellaro, Ingvar Kenne, Kat Palasi, Dave Southwood, Gunnar Knechtel, Pieter van der Howen and Sye Williams. I will be featuring selections of these photographers over the next few weeks.

I bought the paper edition, but you don’t have to as the entire Prison/Prigione Issue 50 can be viewed online.

Above all, while browsing the images and stories of the magazine, I am really pressed into thinking about the ease with which a commentator can politicise and argue against the prison system in America, but be flummoxed when asked to appreciate prison systems elsewhere. Benetton uses the common theme of incarceration to raise questions, but I am at a loss to think of common answers to tackle the pain, blood and damage done to individuals in their lives before, during and after imprisonment.

At a surface level this is car-crash photography; a look inside worlds we’ll never know, but at its heart it is a call to think about the nature of humanity and to think about the capacity for humans to kill, to survive, to get addicted and to repair and to forgive.

Back cover


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