Variation in the prison density
2022 began with the country’s lowest occupancy rate since 2002. The authorities counted 46,053 prisoners (42,741 men and 3,312 women) at the end of 2021. The reduced prison population was due to reforms of the penitentiary and legal systems as well as the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The General Secretary of the prison service, Ángel Luis Ortiz González, thinks that the increase in semi-custodial arrangements influenced the drop in the occupancy rate.
The Spanish penitentiary system comes under two administrations:
- The General Secretariat for Penitentiary Institutions (SGIP), for all the autonomous communities (with the exception of Catalonia). It is under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior.
- The General Directorate for Penitentiary Services (DGSP) for Catalonia. This falls under the supervision of the Department of Justice.
A joint committee facilitates coordination between the two administrations.
Detention conditions vary according to the managing authority of a facility (SGIP or DGSP), the age of the building, and the prison regime.
Seventy prison officers have filed an administrative appeal with the High Court of Justice of the Basque Country. This complaint is brought against the Basque judicial management for the violation of the officers’ fundamental rights while performing their jobs. They criticise the low salaries granted by the Basque administration and the lack of supplies. The unions start mobilising in the coming weeks to showcase the “absolute failure” of the Basque management.
Number of recorded violent acts between prisoners
Number of escapes
Two escapes took place in July 2017, at the Villabona prison.
The night of 22 September, a prisoner escaped from the Aquilino Tejeira hospital in Penonomé, where he had been hospitalised.
The prison regime operates on a system of classification:
- First Grade: this concerns potentially dangerous prisoners. A closed, high-security regime is imposed. This can also apply to prisoners on provisionary detention.
- Second Grade: this concerns prisoners placed in the ordinary closed regime.
- Third Grade: this concerns prisoners who receive a regime of partial liberty. Assignation of this grade is subject to consideration of a prisoner’s personal situation (parenthood, illness, etc), the seriousness of their crime, and their behaviour.
On 1 October 2021, a transfer of jurisdiction placed the Basque executive branch in charge of managing prisons in its region. Following this transfer, 36 prisoners requested to be reclassified into a higher prison status (prisoner ranking system), and 25 prisoners, who are members of the ETA, were granted the promotion. The proportion of prisoners who were granted this change and are members or former members of the ETA is 5% higher than that of the general prison population. 116 former ETA members, sentenced for their affiliation with the terrorist group, are serving their sentences in Basque prisons. Among them, 36 prisoners are held in a semi-custodial regime, including 28 in level 3, meaning they can move about freely during the day and only spend their nights in prison. The Basque government denies any favouritism towards ETA members. 457 status promotions were granted since the transfer of jurisdiction, of which 5% were members of the ETA.
Number of medical staff (FTE)
The teams of health professionals working in detention are composed, in 2015, of 600 general practitioners, 30 psychiatrists and 300 psychologists.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports a lack of health care staff. The 2020 report highlights the lack of nurses and doctors in detention as well as the lack of psychiatrists and psychologists. Overall, the report states poor working conditions for medical staff.
Doctors have called attention to the lack of health professionals. They criticised the instability of temporary contracts, the lack of qualifications and training among temporary workers, and the stress generated by the challenging working environment.
In August 2022, 67% of the positions for prison doctors remained vacant. There were 148 regular posts filled, 40 interim positions and three interns, for a total of under 200 doctors for over 55,000 prisoners. The Ministry of the Interior created 80 new posts for health workers in 2021 and 2022, but only 11 have been filled.
The Ministry of the Interior oversees health care in the country’s prison facilities, except in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Navarre. The Spanish government acknowledged, in an official document from the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions, that due to a “shortage of medical professionals in certain prisons”, it was not possible to “guarantee medical care around the clock”. In response to this shortage, the government implemented a system for remote consultations with medical professionals assigned to other facilities.
Variation in the number of prison guard positions
The prison service unions have reported a growing prison staff shortage in Basque prisons following the transfer of jurisdiction of the facilities’ management. This shortage is exacerbated by a string of resignations, repeated absences and numerous retirements. Five prison officials have resigned since May. There are 140 vacant posts.
There are chaplains in the prisons
On 13 August, an evangelical chaplain performed an exorcism on a female prisoner in the Brians I prison (Barcelona). He was subsequently dismissed from his role for breaking the internal rules and regulations, which require him to report the activities he plans to perform. His accreditation was revoked by the Church. The prison service has suspended his pastoral work in detention. The event was called a “error” during a meeting between the Ministry of Justice and evangelical representatives. The pastoral and social work of evangelists in prisons has continued normally.
Number of violent acts against prison staff
The number of violent acts has increased by 11% compared to the previous year. Two hundred violent acts against prison staff were recorded during the first nine months of 2016. The number of attacks has decreased over the last ten years. One of the reasons cited is the decrease in prison population. Prison officers protested in May 2017 against budget cuts and the acts of violence they endure on a daily basis. According to the officers, the main cause of the problem is the lack of staff.
2022 was a particularly challenging year for prison officers with respect to their safety. In November 2022, twelve prison officers were assaulted in four Spanish prisons in under a week. The official statistics included reports of over 300 assaults, twice as many as in 2021. The increased frequency of the attacks in the Alcalá Meco prison (Madrid I) coincides with the beginning of its use as a transit centre.
The use of cell phones is authorised
The use of cell phones obtained on the black market is common. Inmates have an established network for lending and borrowing cell phones. Possession of a cell phone leads to disciplinary action (solitary confinement, withdrawal of walking rights, etc.)
In autumn 2022, Botafuegos Prison in Algeciras was the scene of several incidents. Drug traffickers from Cádiz attempted to smuggle in two mobile phones, cables to connect to the power grid and thirty grammes of hashish, as well as other materials like cords and hooks. Ten mobile phones were confiscated after having been hidden in the false bottoms of shelves inside of cells. Prisoners who smuggle in and/or have mobile phones inside of prisons are not subject to additional criminal charges. They can, however, receive disciplinary sanctions, such as being suspended from spending time outside for up to 30 days. Many prisoners prefer taking this risk and continuing to use their phones. More mobile phones have been confiscated at Botafuegos since 2017 than at any other prison facility in Spain: 690 in total.
Number and percentage of prisoners who work
slightly below the national minimum wage
The minimum wage in Spain is €5.45 per hour (2019).
The average salaries of prisoners working in the Spanish prisons is reportedly between 200 and 300 euros per month. The hourly rate fluctuates between 3.20 and 4.50 euros for workers without specialist skills.
Minimum wage is set at 1,000 euros per month.
Psychiatric units within prisons are few and far between, despite the legal measures put in place.
The two psychiatric prison facilities are in Seville and Alicante, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Brians 1 prison, in Catalonia, has a psychiatric hospital unit. Brians II has a psychiatric rehabilitation unit that can house 22 patients. This prison also has an arrangement with the Sant Joan de Déu hospital, for the treatment of prisoners with serious mental health problems. These institutions are under the control of the Catalan Department for Justice.
A specific programme for people suffering from certain mental health issues (PAIEM, “Programa de Atención Integral a Enfermos Mentales”) was set up in 2005 by the prison administration. The number of prisoners taking part in this programme in 2017 was 2,029 (1,892 of which are in SGIP prisons and 137 in Catalonia). This represents 3.4% of the prison population. The PAIEM programme is present in the majority of prisons. NGOs are involved in delivering the programme.
The Ombudsman has remarked on the programme’s deficiencies in most of the prisons it visited. Care is limited to diagnosis and drug therapy. Tailored therapy is not often provided.
In 2017, the Ministries for Health and Justice signed an agreement for the integration of mental health teams in all institutions. The Catalan Penitentiary Administration has promised to invest an additional 6.5 million euros from 2018 (18.5 million per year in total) to mental health.
Around 8% of inmates in Spain suffer from serious psychological problems (around 4,700 people)1.
The Association for Human Rights of Andalusia (APDHA), “Health in Prison, Robbed of health within four walls”, 2016, p.23. (in Spanish)“ ↩
In 2020, the infirmaries in prison facilities held 7,432 prisoners with mental illnesses. The percentage of the prison population dealing with serious and chronic mental disorders is estimated at 5%. The prison system only has two hospitals specialised in psychiatry. The union ACAIP-UGT decried the shortage of available doctors and reiterated that the suicide rate is eight times higher in prison, often due to psychological distress.
More than 200 charities and associations specialising in mental health came together to oppose the proposed development of a super-psychiatric prison unit at Siete Aguas (Valence). The unit was designed to hold 500 prisoners. The campaigning organisations, under the collective banner “mental health beyond prison” demanded that construction be stopped. The vice-president of Valencia was also opposed to the new centre.
Critics of the two existing ‘psychiatric prison’ facilities in Séville and Fontcalent claimed they were overcrowded, poorly run and lacked sufficient medical staff. It was also claimed that they were run more for punishment than psychiatric care: *“Nearly ten years ago, prison authorities were already cautioning that these facilities must not become substitutes for the old asylums, which were banned under psychiatric reforms of the 1980s”, said the campaigners.
They stressed that the proposed facilities contravened national mental health strategy: prisons cannot and should not support people suffering severe mental ill health. The super psychiatric prison unit would not meet international standards, and they were concerned it would also be too remote.
Prison facilities have a library
Prisons do not always have a reading room.
The libraries of the Spanish prison system contain over 900,000 publications. The most-read authors among prisoners in 2021 were Follett, Vázquez Fiqueroa and Pérez-Reverte.
Sentence adjustments can be granted during the incarceration
Article 90 of the Penal Code allows the sentence enforcement judge to suspend a sentence. They may grant a conditional liberation according to the following conditions:
- The prisoner is classed as third grade, has carried out three-quarters of their sentence and demonstrates good behaviour.
- The prisoner has carried out two-thirds of the sentence, has a job or participates in training or cultural activities, and demonstrates good behaviour.
- The prisoner is serving their first sentence, which is less than three years long, has served half its length and demonstrates good behaviour.
- The prisoner is classed as third grade and is over the age of 70.
- The prisoner is classed as third grade and is suffering from a serious illness.
The Supreme Court rejected a sentence revision request from Javier Atristain, a former member of the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) who was sentenced to 17 years in prison. In January 2022, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Spain for the violation of Mr. Atristain’s rights. He had been held in secret in 2010 without access to a lawyer and with no communication with his relatives (incommunicado).
73% in SGIP institutions and 75% in DGSP institutions
The occupancy rate of prisons under the authority of the Spanish Ministry of the Interior was one of the lowest in Europe: 73% in January 2021.
According to data from the Council of Europe, the occupancy rate of prisons run by the General State Administration (Administración General del Estado, AGE) was among the lowest in Europe.
With 73.4 inmates for 100 spaces, the occupancy rate of prison facilities managed by the AGE was 9.1 points lower than the European average.
Methods of constraint (handcuffs, shackles) are used after an incident, when transferring a prisoner to a high security area. Minors in the Sogradio and Tierras de Oria prisons have reported being slapped and hit by staff. The CPT notes the use of mechanical constraint on agitated minors. Some minors at the Tierras de Orias prison were immobilised on their stomach while attached to a bed for several hours. They were not allowed access to a toilet.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) highlighted the “considerable progress” observed in the reduction of the application of mechanical fixation and its duration. However, the CPT considers that the goal should be to abolish this practice in detention.
Inquiries linked to allegations of torture or illl-treatment are partial and limited, verging on non-existent. The administration is not in a position to establish a judgement on the reality of ill-treatment. Prison officers are rarely subject to judicial condemnation. The most common sanction is a suspension of their employment.
The Coordinator for the Prevention and Denunciation of Torture (CPDT) has reported a general climate of fear and intimidation. These circumstances prevent prisoners from complaining of poor treatment.
Prisoners in León prison have complained to a delegation from the CPT of physical ill-treatment. They did not lodge a complaint due to intimidation from staff.
During the CPT visit to Catalonia, the delegation noted numerous cases of ill-treatment by prison officers. Prisoners who are agitated or those who show signs of violence are often slapped, punched or clubbed in their cells or in a separate room. The CPT is very concerned about such violence.1
The CPT notes in its 2020 report, after visiting various prisons, the existence of a practice of torture “known as falaka”, which consists of repeatedly hitting the soles of the feet with a truncheon. The CPT calls upon the authorities to investigate these allegations of torture and ill-treatment. It suggests that prison officials train prison staff “in restraint, contention and de-escalation techniques”. The Spanish authorities commit themselves to a “constructive and serious dialogue” with prison staff following the report.
European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, “Report to the Spanish Government carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 6 to 13 September 2018”, 2020, pp. 23-27. ↩
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) urged the Spanish authorities to take action to prevent ill-treatment in prisons and to ensure that effective investigations are carried out into alleged cases of ill-treatment. The CPT put forth a series of measures to improve the treatment of prisoners, in particular vulnerable people and those placed in the two prison psychiatric hospitals. The CPT reported cases of violence committed by prison officers against prisoners (slaps, kicks, strikes with batons). Some prisoners claimed to have been subjected to “falaka”, a method of torture that involves striking the soles of the feet. The CPT stated that the “physical ill- treatment inflicted by prison officers [was] a disproportionate and punitive reaction to the recalcitrant behaviour of prisoners.”
The concerns of the prison administration are the main consideration when placing prisoners in an establishment. Family ties tend to deteriorate between the inmate and their loved ones. Travel costs are often cited as a reason.
The case of Basque prisoners being held far from their families demonstrates this point.
The detained members of ETA[^etanom] accused of terrorism had previously been assigned to institutions across the country, in the framework of a dispersion policy implemented from 1987 to 2018. This meant that some families had to travel more than 1,000 kilometres in order to visit their detained relatives. As of 2018, a new policy has been implemented regarding the placement of ETA prisoners closer to their families. The members of Etxerat, an association for the family members of prisoners who are part of ETA, pointed out that 73% of them are now imprisoned within less than 400 kilometres of the Basque Country. The Spanish government repored that at least 179 prisoner members of ETA are now located in Basque Country or nearby.
A map showing the distribution of members of the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) organisation incarcerated in Spain revealed that nearly 100 of them are held in the Basque Country. Associations for victims of terrorism condemned this breakdown of the dispersion policy. Associations for the support of ETA prisoners, in contrast, encouraged efforts to hold prisoners closer to their place of residence: 79 ETA members are still incarcerated in facilities outside of the Basque Country.
There are designated places for physical activities and sports
The Ministry of the Interior announced the reopening of a dozen or so pools after two years of closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The prison facilities authorised to reopen their pools starting 15 June are Dueñas (Palencia), Topas (Salamanca), Zuera (Zaragoza), Villena and Picassent (Alicante), Albolote (Granada) and Las Palmas (Canary Islands). The Professional Association of Prison Staff (Asociación Profesional de Funcionarios de Prisiones, APFP) stated that reopening the pools will cost 207,390 euros, plus 27,792 euros for water costs, 33,087 euros for electricity, 41,947 euros for chlorine, and 41,422 euros for salaries and national insurance for lifeguards. The unions Your Neglect Could Kill Me (Tu Abandono Me Puede Matar, TAMPM) and APFP criticised the high costs, which they judge to be low priority. They instead emphasised the necessity of increasing staff numbers and salaries.
Food services are managed by
Meals are prepared by trained inmates.
In the Castilla-La Mancha region, food in prison facilities is provided by two private groups.
Number of deaths in custody
210 deaths in SGIP institutions and 36 in DGSP institutions.
Three prisoners died of overdoses in under a month in a correctional facility in Seville. The prisoners’ families condemned the prison authorities’ failure to control the circulation of substances within prisons, explaining that prisoners have access to medication with no prior diagnosis. They requested that the administration implement other methods of care. These facts were confirmed by the CPT’s report for 2021, which noted that access to psychological care was insufficient. The Committee also mentioned in the report that prisoners with mental illnesses should be placed in specialised facilities.
Prisoners can be assisted by a lawyer throughout their incarceration
People arrested for common law crimes have access to a lawyer, either officially designated or of their choice, while in custody. In cases of “incommunicado” detention, interrogations usually take place without a lawyer present. Legal aid is available for Spanish citizens, citizens of other EU countries, and other foreigners who can demonstrate that they lack sufficient resources (eligibility is defined by Article 2 of the law on free legal representation). An insufficiency of resources is defined according to the total household income, not only the revenue of the prisoner. Resources taken into account are gross resources. The eligibility thresholds for legal aid in 2017 were:
- For a person living alone: the applicant must demonstrate a gross monthly income equal to or lower than 1065 Euros.
- For a person living in a family of three people or fewer: the applicant and their family must demonstrate a gross monthly income equal to or lower than 1331 Euros.
- For a person living in a family of four members or more: the applicant and their family must demonstrate a gross monthly income equal to or lower than 1597 Euros.
On Tuesday, 18 January, the European Court of Human Rights found the Spanish state at fault after authorities refused to apply the right to legal assistance during questioning. In late 2010, Javier Atristain Gorosabel was detained as a member of a terrorist organisation and was questioned without assistance from his lawyer. The Court judged that these facts constituted a violation of the right to a fair trial.
Future prison wardens are required to pass an exam and undertake training to join the prison staff. There are three qualifying exercises: a personality evaluation, a knowledge test, and a medical examination. The selected wardens undergo rotation training. To sit the exam, there are several prerequisites: potential recruits must have Spanish nationality, hold a bachelor’s or vocational degree, and have never been sentenced to a prison term of more than three years.
The prison staff association Tu abandono me puede matar denounced the significant costs charged to staff members to access the mandatory training before assignment to prison facilities. These costs include lodging and amenities relating to the five-week stay.