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Overcrowding leaves Spain’s prisons on the brink

The country’s jail population has quadrupled in the last 30 years, despite a decline in crime. Unimaginative policy-making means the increase is likely to continue.


Spain is one of many countries with a prison population that is swelling. Photo: Olmovich.

Madrid’s Valdemoro prison, known as “Madrid III”, sits amid the arid badlands south of the capital, a few miles off the main road to Andalusia.

Like all of Spain’s 87 prisons, Valdemoro is overcrowded. It was built to accommodate 980 prisoners, but now holds more than 1,500. A further 20 jails in the country are at more than twice their original capacity.

Valdemoro is a holding centre for suspects in cases led by the investigating judges of the High Court. That principally means those accused of terrorism, along with suspected drug and arms traffickers. It is where the men responsible for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings were held while awaiting trial.

Among the foreigners currently awaiting trial in the prison is a Canadian in his early 50s, who, with several other men, was aboard a vessel carrying a large consignment of cocaine that was intercepted by the police earlier this year when it entered Spanish waters.

He is being held on remand, and may have to wait three years before his case goes to trial.

Spain now has the highest rate of imprisonment in the European Union. In 1980 the country’s prison population was around 18,000.  It is now close to 80,000. With 166 prisoners per 100,000 (above the United Kingdom’s 153 per 100,000) Spain is currently locking up more than 7,000 people a year out of a population of 44 million.

And yet Spain also has one of the European Union’s lowest crime rates. Surprisingly, perhaps, Sweden has the highest number of crimes per capita, with 120 for every 1,000 people. The United Kingdom follows, with 101 crimes committed for every 1,000 people. Spain’s rate is 47, having fallen from 57 in 2003. To put the problem in perspective, if England and Wales, which have a prison population of almost 90,000, jailed at the same rate as Spain, they would have almost 400,000 people behind bars.

So why are so many people in jail in Spain, and why are there going to be so many more?

A tough code

The first explanation lies in Spain’s Penal Code. This was revised in 1995 by the outgoing Socialist administration, ensuring harsher sentences for robbery and drugs trafficking, as well as introducing new offences. It also stopped the practice of reducing sentences through good behaviour, as well as severely cutting back the use of half-way houses, or letting prisoners out on day release in the final months of their sentences. In other words, prisoners now serve the full time for longer sentences, and for a greater range of offences.

Since then, the Penal Code has been further toughened, notably in 2003, driving up the prison population even more: between 2006 and 2009, it rose from 64,000 to 76,000. Some traffic offences are now punishable by jail, as is threatening behaviour by men toward their partners or spouses. There are close to 1,000 people in jail for motoring-related offences, and almost 6,000 for domestic violence. Around 25 percent of those being held are simply awaiting trial.

The government, meanwhile, is currently working on further amendments to the Penal Code that will likely further increase the prison population.

The 70-percent increase in number of prisoners over the last decade is often attributed to foreigners, and it is true that since 2000, more than six out of every 10 people sent to jail have been non-Spaniards. The European Union has already warned that by the end of this year, around 50 percent of the prison population will be non-Spanish. Moroccans make up the largest number, followed by Colombians, Algerians, and Romanians. The authorities say foreigners are not automatically repatriated, but neither are they able to formalise their situation. They remain illegal immigrants, and unable to work, which is why so many of them return to crime almost immediately after their release.

Foreigners are rarely granted bail until their trial — although in one notable recent case, a British man caught aboard a yacht bringing marijuana into Barcelona asked to be kept in remand, saying that he had no means to provide for himself.

Drugs: the main offender

But the real reason Spain’s prison population has quadrupled over the last 30 years is related to drugs. As in other developed countries, Spain has been waging an unsuccessful war on drugs for the last two decades. The Socialists initially decriminalized consumption —and the country still has a relatively lenient approach to personal drug use— but the rampant spread of AIDS by the late 1980s, as well as the sharp rise in petty crime by addicts, led the government to crack down on consumption.

The Canadian awaiting trial in Valdemoro is among the 50 percent of prisoners in jail on drugs-related charges. As a smuggler, he is at the top of the food chain (although he says he is innocent); other prisoners are inside for dealing, or committing crimes to get money to pay for drugs.

There have been calls for foreign nationals found guilty of serious offences to be sent back to their countries of origin to serve their sentences. It is probably also worth pointing out that Spain has always had a much higher unemployment rate than its neighbours, and that its education system is chronically underfunded, with large numbers of school leavers having no basic qualifications. Compounding the problem, by the police’s own admission, they very rarely are able to put away the people at the top of the drugs trade.

Of the other 50 percent of inmates, half are judged by the country’s director of jails, Mercedes Gallizo, to be suffering from psychiatric problems. She also points out that the constant addition of new crimes to the Penal Code mean that growing numbers of people from normal backgrounds, with no previous convictions or involvement in criminal activity, are finding themselves behind bars.

A far cheaper solution, say many of those who work in the prison system, would be to look at other ways of punishing non-violent offenders, establish more half-way houses, and offer counselling for men accused of domestic violence. Then there is the possibility of imposing shorter sentences and providing incentives such as early release for good behaviour.

Is the policy working? If that policy is to lock up lots of people, then it’s working just fine. At present, between 40 percent and 70 percent of prisoners end up back in jail. The government plans to extend the Penal Code to include tougher sentences for paedophiles, terrorists, and rapists, as well as for corruption, while coming up with new crimes, among them organ trafficking and piracy. The conservative opposition Popular Party opposes the amendments, saying they are “insufficient”.

Meanwhile, 11 new prisons are being built between now and 2012 that will create another 8,920 cells. At the current rate, they will be virtually filled as soon as they open.

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Published: Jun 9 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Overcrowding leaves Spain’s prisons on the brink”

  1. Philip Halliday a Canadian citizen.. a life long resident of Digby Nova Scotia has been in a spanish prison now for 300 days. He is very ill and requires gall bladder surgery. He is innocent a crew member hired to sail a ship that was to be sold. He had no knowledge of illegal activities.

    It is absurd to keep this man in jail without being able to prove his innocence.

    Spain justice system is not justice at all.

    Send this man back to Canada where he belongs!

  2. No wonder the prisons are full…how many inmates have to wait four years for a trial? The Canadian mentioned in the article is indeed innocent. I know this for a fact, as he is my husband. He was transferred June 29th to another prison…his third transfer since Decemebr 2009.

  3. My friend who is a policeman in Catalonia says that Spain in fact has very lenient laws that allow repeat offenders like thieves back on the streets in a matter of days and that the prisons can have a full suite of amenities that encourages foreigners especially to continue a life of crime. As usual, prison systems are very complicated beasts, and with the mental illness component – treatment that is severely underfunded by governments for actually pretty good reason, the whole situation is a mess.

    As for Mr. Halliday, I don’t doubt his innocence, but I also don’t dismiss the other innocents that are in jail awaiting trial in similar circumstances. And with the unemployment rate and less money, Spain is unlikely to fix this problem any time soon. We may simply see the release of mass numbers of prisoners.

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