Dossiers, From the Field

Economies of Security and Care in Catalonia, Spain

The editors of Anthropoliteia welcome Johanna Römer with a Dossier in our From the Field section.

Police Marcha Dignidad

Police presence at the Marcha por la Dignidad. Photo courtesy of Lee Douglas.


“The history of prisons in Spain?” a Catalan prison guard asked me, a man in his mid-forties, his hands resting on a heavy leather belt. “Everything has already been written. Our vocabulary, our forms of punishment – even the word cell itself, all come from Catholic and monastic practices.”

He turned to face the thick glass wall of the bunker.

“I spent years teaching…in law enforcement, in the private sector, and now I just want to be here, with these guys [inmates], where I can have peace and quiet,” he said, nodding towards a small group of men talking softly around a checked tablecloth whose color was imperceptible through the glass.

“Look at that. No one makes problems.”

While monitoring the inmates through the glass, the guard narrated other stories of prison work; but his last seemingly unremarkable comment, “no one makes problems,” stayed with me.

The statement is at once a display of absolute power—power over the inmates, who cannot return his gaze, who do not speak back—and an acknowledgement of partial defeat. And rather than arriving at the culmination of his career, in this narrative he finds himself in the prison after years of navigating employment in public and private bureaucracies, expressing  frustration about corrupt management practices. Spain’s legal present and future are already inscribed by the history that this prison guard, and the many other prison professionals with whom I had contact in Barcelona, knew in great detail.

There are at least two deeper tensions behind the image conveyed by the guard. First, a rehabilitative model of punishment that seeks to reinsert offenders into communities was developed in contemporary Spain after the fall of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975). However this rehabilitative model conflicts with new uses and forms of surveillance of public space that complicate the process of reinsertion. Second, ideals related to the rehabilitation of prisoners into a homogenous ethnic community are at odds with the reality of a diverse prison population inhabiting a complex nation-state composed of seventeen autonomous regions, including Catalonia. Thus the ideal of a Catalan civil society, and of who belongs to that public sphere, has contracted on two scales: public space is increasingly surveilled, and a Catalan national and ethnic identity is promoted in regional media. The Catalan case is informative because it shows a moment in which a concept of justice based on the reintegration and care of inmates confronts the limits of its own ‘security’, in terms of what information can and must be known about a confined population in order to successfully rehabilitate, and by what levels of government (Hamilton 2013). First describing a growing conflict over the use of Catalan and Spanish public space, then turning to scenes I witnessed conducting fieldwork within the Catalan penitentiary system, I will show how the construction of data about a diverse inmate population places pressure on a rehabilitative model of punishment, and on the location of sovereign government authority.

This particular unit of the prison, where I spoke with the guard above, was one of the only places, staff told me, that one might hear inmates speaking in Catalan with one another. And this small area of the prison is unique if we take into account that forty-five percent of inmates in Catalan prisons are foreign, often from South America and North Africa. The remainder of the inmate population is Spanish, but persons who come from many different autonomous regions of Spain. Thus, hearing inmates speak with one another in Catalan is unusual. The congenial conversation we were observing was not only an anomaly, but also a product of cultural homogeneity. The quiet conversation here was loosely described by the guard as an ideal of Catalan rehabilitation—inmates’ forming social relationships with one another and participating in treatment programs.

Although Catalonia administers its own prisons, like the rest of Spain, its treatment programs rely on detailed data collection about inmates, and the creation of trust between prison treatment workers and inmates in order to facilitate inmates’ behavioral and mental change. Significantly, the core of rehabilitation programs has been to make treatment available for drug addiction. Many Spanish inmates in the particular prison where I have done fieldwork came of age during and after the transition to democracy, a period with astronomical levels of drug consumption (Gallizo 2013). Thus treatment staff are working to reinsert inmates into Catalan and Spanish society, but in this society, the meaning of “belonging” is heavily debated. The transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy, as well as austerity policies are all being rethought at the same time that uses of public space are increasingly policed and contested.

Turning again to the guard’s statement that, “no one makes problems”, he expressed faith in the hierarchy and rule-making of a Spanish penitentiary system that is clear and absent of corruption. However this formulation exists in tension with the ways in which Catalan prisons also rely indirectly on the construction of a Catalan moral community that serves to encourage participation in treatment. Prison treatment staff were adamant that their work was contingent upon the social acceptance of inmates by society upon their release; but the implicit construction of that society was often homogenous, Spanish and/or Catalan. Treatment staff took pride in working with inmates who could achieve social acceptance.

However, in reality, society is not homogenous, nor is it only Spanish or only Catalan. What does the work of prison treatment professionals, charged with re-socializing prisoners into responsible Catalan and Spanish residents, look like in a region which will hold its own referendum for independence from Spain in November of 2014? How do ideas about just punishment in Catalonia evolve in the face of an intensified policing of public space, economic crisis and a push for independence from Spain?

Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman in Empire of Trauma and Miriam Ticktin in Casualties of Care, demonstrate how state retrenchment in France has led to the displacement of humanitarian ideals onto suffering immigrant bodies. They show how the policing of lower class or immigrant bodies becomes the ground for sustaining state and class identities and moralities. Much research focuses on understanding how broader societies incorporate or reflect carceral regimes. Equally important, as Danielle Allen suggests in a recent interview, is how conceptions of orderly society are reproduced within prisons and shape citizens’ moral opinion about states. The following section describes the policing of public space in Spain and Barcelona. The conclusion explores why the question of the resocialization of offenders into an autonomous region aspiring to statehood is significant for studies of security and governance.

Securing Public Space

Since 2010 Spain has had one of the highest rates of incarceration in the European Union. Catalonia constructed two new prisons in Tarragona and Reus to absorb the influx of inmates, but the broader issues at stake are changes in the policing and governance of public space that have emerged, to an extent, as a product of economic crisis. The occupation of farms, public structures and residential buildings by the Platform for the Mortgage Affected, or Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), is only the most visible form of protests against evictions for loan foreclosure and other government austerity measures.

I witnessed several prison intakes in which inmates, often older men, described resisting police eviction from their homes. PAH activists initiated ‘escraches’ or small demonstrations at the home or office of a person or financial institution repossessing their property while continuing to charge them for their mortgage. This practice emerged in Argentina through activists’ protests of the Law of Due Obedience (1987), Ley de Obedencia Debida, and the Full Stop Law (1986), or Ley de Punto Final. Both of these Argentine laws permitted complete amnesty for political crimes. In the absence of legal redress for these wrongs, Argentine activists carried out public “trials”, calling attention to abuses of state power that had been disregarded. Similarly, PAH has constructed a publicly visible platform from which to draw global attention to Spain’s widespread housing crisis.

Participants in the 2011-2012 Spanish protests (known as the indignados movement, or 15M) have tactically used public space to call attention to social and economic inequality. The state response has been to tighten controls on public association. In Madrid multiple helicopters will follow street protests, accompanied by an increased presence on the ground; in Barcelona and Madrid black police vans block off and monitor participants at every intersection along a protest route. The adoption of escraches explicitly links political violence and political corruption, political and economic crimes—but many of the people criminalized for resisting eviction are Spanish property holders, as well as immigrants.

The new Penal Code (2013) and proposed Law of Citizen Safety target the use of public space in Spain in profound ways. The criminal code makes theft a crime associated with “professionals” who are also often immigrants, operating in public space, and therefore punishable by three years in prison. The Law of Citizen Safety would require users of internet cafes to present ID for proprietors to photocopy and archive, and would sanction the circulation of photos that make fun of the police. It would also fine escraches, allow new types of stop-and-frisk, and criminalize the use of the internet to incite others to engage in public disorder or violence.

Occupying Streets, Optimizing Minds

The Catalan press positions Spain as reducing state services while draining Catalan resources. Thus prisons become reluctant sites of social integration, and immigrant bodies in a Catalan prison become the ground for potential contested sovereignties—but integration into what, and reform by whom? In addition to drug and violence treatment programs, the Spanish rehabilitative model has been built on the ideal of helping inmates maintain contact with families and the exterior world. This program includes social workers facilitating staff-accompanied, treatment-related trips outside of the prison for inmates, or short visits to their family homes.

Participating in rehabilitation classes in order to go on programmed leave, and the trust created during these visits outside of the prison, are the crux of this rehabilitative model. However, in the case of non-Spanish nationals, such outside visits are not always an option. Without family members in Spain, there are few persons that might receive the inmate if he or she were to be granted permission to leave, and even fewer people that prison professionals can contact in order to obtain information about or corroborate an inmate’s history. In a difficult economy, ‘the street’ becomes an obstacle to treatment, for cultural and racial newcomers and Spanish nationals alike.

On one occasion, I attended a question and answer session held in the prison for a small group of foreign inmates, coordinated by a Barcelona organization. A representative of the organization explained he and his colleagues were visiting different prisons to collect complaints of discrimination against foreigners. Their institution was involved in efforts to create a public office, like the Catalan Sindic de Greuges, or Ombudsman’s office, that would formally receive this type of complaint.

“We aren’t like northern Europe”, the representative joked to the inmates, “where you have all kinds of racist parties. Fifty or sixty years ago lots of Spaniards came here [to Catalonia].”

Someone then yelled that there is no justice in Catalonia.

The representative reiterated that his organization had come to hear about problems that inmates had experienced with discrimination.

Then a pair of men stood up together. One man asked: “foreigners get many more sentences here, can you confront this?” The representative deflected this question, reminding the men that only prisons were administered by Catalonia. At the end of the discussion, an inmate asked whether or not there could be more education classes in prisons because these classes were often full.

The representative responded, “Europe and Spain have more persons than there are positions to employ them, and so right now there is not enough money for this, nor for education in general…if they [training courses] are full they are full regardless of whether or not you are an immigrant. There are cases of racism but not everything happens because of you being an immigrant. We want to hear about cases of discrimination.”

“The majority of us just pass from the airports to the jail,” an inmate replied. “We are all workers, not murderers.”

“From the time you are little you experience racism and it affects you a lot, you need integration except that it needs to happen from the time people are small,” an inmate offers.

Here the representative interrupts him: “parli’m en català una mica,” speak to me in Catalan a little, he says, and the inmate stops short.

“Will speaking Catalan give you more opportunities?” Another inmate calls out.

“Yes,” the representative responds, “Catalan will give you more opportunities and you will get along better with the judge and the police, they’ll say this person is black but they speak Catalan.”

Like the prison guard with whom I spoke, the representative of this organization above calls attention to the ideal of a well-governed, moral, and white Catalan community. Explicitly comparing Spain as a nation-state to ‘racist’ Northern Europe, and implicitly comparing non-Catalan Spain to Catalonia, he implies that the autonomous region of Catalonia has welcomed its immigrants. By association, he suggests that if there are disproportionate numbers of sentences for foreigners, then this is the responsibility of Spain, not Catalonia. More importantly, he indicates, “discrimination” in criminalization and sentencing can be divorced from structural or social factors and isolated within particular instances of economic and legal fault, such as an example the representative gave of immigrants who were not paid by a company. Thus, he conveys the message that while there is no money for educational classes for anyone, learning Catalan will promote better relationships to the criminal justice system and the state itself.

Here the prison is presented as an ‘opportunity’ provided by Catalonia, but one that nonetheless entails future acts of detention, as well as involvement with the Spanish judicial system. The representative deftly positions Catalonia as economic provider, while suggesting that the problem of scarce employment belongs to ‘Spain’ and ‘Europe’. In accepting complaints of discrimination, the Catalan organization would arbitrate complaints against Spain as well as Catalonia. The expectation conveyed is that immigrants will become perpetual clients of this particular Spanish, but not necessarily Catalan, system—the inmates will go on to have more interactions with the ‘judge’ and the ‘police’.

Although roughly half of foreigners in Spanish prisons are undocumented, a 2010 study of this population showed that eighty percent wanted to remain in Spain after release (GRID 2010). Only eight percent would accept expulsion as an alternative to their sentence. While some prisons in Catalonia have hired additional personnel and legal experts to process paperwork for this population, not infrequently prisoners lack documentation from their country of origin.

Thus under a regime of intensified policing and economic crisis, and with an apparently increasing influx of immigrants, prisons are doubly constituted as spaces of documentation and identification. They may be an immigrant’s first site of contact with the Spanish state and Catalan government, and may also initiate a criminal history for that person, which makes future registration in Spain more difficult. The reach of the prison extends further into Catalan public and social space as justice system professionals work to obtain documentation for immigrants. At the same time, both the streets and the prisons become contested territories of documentation.

Therefore the question remains as to which levels of government are responsible for facilitating the kind of data collection and official documentation that would enable inmate reintegration following release from prison. Returning to the conversation above with immigrant prison inmates, Catalan institutions retain control over economic aspects of integration (e.g. receiving complaints of employment or housing discrimination). Nevertheless, to incorporate these persons into a Catalan and Spanish economy, full legalization remains under Spanish jurisdiction.

The Catalan and Spanish penitentiary model relies on the reintegration of offenders into public space, which new policing tactics, demographic shifts, and economic change may undermine. On the one hand, the brief examples above provide insight into an ideology of rehabilitation that seeks to work on minds, to ‘cambiar el xip’, ‘change chips’, eliciting from inmates a recognition that they have committed a crime and a willingness to reintegrate into society through maintaining relationships with family “on the outside”. At the same time, an increasing population of inmates without family in Spain, and an intensified state re-occupation of public space, both place enormous tension on the levels of state and regional government mediation necessary to respond to an undocumented person with a rehabilitative model.

Theories of control are often written with reference to the nation-state and its spaces of exception. However, studies of non-sovereign jurisdictions, and of sub-national or municipal governance provide examples of hyper-legality, of increasingly pluralistic and occupied penal and legal zones of entanglement. These cases complicate the age-old liberal problem of degrees and forms of acceptable coercion exercised by the state. Instead, they provide insights into how different levels of governmental and non-governmental entities compete in the quest to ‘convert’ persons outside of the law into citizens.

Marcha Dignidad 1

On March 22, 2014, citizens from across joined the Marcha por la Dignidad, March for Dignity in Madrid, protesting government austerity measures. Photo courtesty of Lee Douglas


3 thoughts on “Economies of Security and Care in Catalonia, Spain

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