the strange world of spanish prisons -- 10/23/15

Today's selection -- from Spain by Robert Goodwin. During any given year in the 1580s, Seville's Royal Prison incarcerated over 20 per cent of that City's official population for such crimes as "blasphemy" and "greed." Yet for the right price, a prisoner could sleep in the sheriff's accommodations, and after a token stay many prisoners escaped by simply walking out:

"Seville had five principal jails. Although life in these institutions must have seemed like an unearthly incarceration in some circle of hell for many prisoners, punishment was not the primary purpose of these prisons. In Cervantes's day, only the criminal clergy and other religious were locked up as a form of penance and as a means to reform. Instead, jails existed to prevent the escape of a whole mix of inmates such as debtors, defendants remanded for trial and convicts awaiting the execution of their sentences.

"By far the most important of these jails was the Royal Prison, which received 18,000 prisoners every year, an astonishing 21 per cent of the officially registered residents of the city and 11 per cent or more of the likely total population, and which always had more than 1,800 inmates at any one time. It stood imposingly at the end of the Plaza San Francisco, the main square of Seville, with the sparkling new City Hall standing to the right and the Palace of the Audiencia with its own lock-up to the left. Today, a narrow alley still called Entrecárceles, 'between-jails', is evidence of where these buildings stood.

Torre del Oro - Used as a Prison in the Middle Ages

"The newly arrived prisoners entered by the main door, known to the inmates as the Golden Gate, which gave on to a kind of reception area blocked off at the other end by the Iron Gate, which allowed access to the main part of the jail. It was called the Golden Gate because at this stage those who could afford the fees could pay 'no mean quantity of Gold' to 'stay in the sheriff's accommodation'. ... The accommodation was relatively comfortable, with its own roof terrace, and such inmates were largely free to come and go and many were given leave to sleep at home. But most prisoners ... were led through the Iron Gate by the doorman, who shouted out their crimes so they could be held in the relevant sections, each named with grim irony: 'Blasphemers' was reserved for blasphemers and gamblers, 'Business' for thieves, 'Pleasure' was 'where the ruffians boast of their deeds', 'Yard-Arm' held the galley-slaves, 'Market' was for the fences, 'Greed' for embezzlers and 'Labyrinth' was the name for the area where they kept the career felons with a hand in every crime.

"Beyond the Iron Gate was the final door, the Silver Gate, where for a ducat or two a prisoner could have his shackles removed. But during the day all the gates seem to have been kept open because of the steady stream of 'men and women who, like ants, come and go with food and bedding and speak to the prisoners'. And 'anyone who dares to escape is unlikely to be stopped unless his face is well known' to the guards. Many a new prisoner would keep his head down for a fortnight or so and then simply walk out as though he were a visitor, while some more familiar characters who feared being recognized dressed up as women and escaped that way. "


Robert Goodwin


Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682


Bloomsbury Press


Copyright Robert Goodwin 2015


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment