Prison life. The building's large courtyard, as well as the chapel, became the axis of prison life for the women.
What life was like in Franco's women's prison in Malaga

What life was like in Franco's women's prison in Malaga

Thousands of women were sent to Caserón de la Goleta, which is now the Local Police headquarters, where the living conditions were "infrahuman". In many cases there was no record of the crime they were supposed to have committed


Friday, 14 December 2018, 10:13


They were accused of being delinquents, alcoholics and psycopaths, "degenerate" women with a tendency to infidelity, divorce or lesbian relationships. Many of them couldn't read or write and ended up being obliged to sign their criminal records with a fingerprint. Nor did they have a chance to defend themselves in the military courts and summary proceedings against charges as ambiguous as 'rebellion' or 'attacks on public morality', although in reality it didn't much matter because in most cases the Franco regime had already found them guilty and sentenced them.

Thousands of women were jailed for simply being related to a suspected subversionist, or sometimes simply for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn't go down in history, but they lived through the Civil War and post-war period with the same amount of pain, contempt and bloodshed as the men. In Malaga, only a small plaque in what is now the Local Police headquarters, the former women's prison, recalls that muted horror.

For decades the Caserón de la Goleta was a men's jail, with just one or two cells reserved for women, until the building fell into such disrepair that it had to be closed and a new one built in 1933. The new provincial prison which, as the press of the time were keen to point out, had running water, was inaugurated on 2 February 1934. At that time, there were 291 men and four women prisoners.

Malaga MP Victoria Kent, who was director of the prison system, had introduced improvements because she was convinced of the need to reform Spanish jails with a more humanitarian focus. When the Civil War began, however, that situation changed radically.

In 1937, after the Francoists took control of the province, there were massive arrests and the old Caserón de la Goleta had to be brought into use as a women's jail despite its run-down state. Around 4,000 prisoners passed through the jail, according to research by professors Encarnación Barranquero, Matilde Eiroa and Paloma Navarro. In the 1990s they were able to access the prisoners' case files, which are now closed under the data protection laws. Historian Víctor Heredia recalls that overcrowding in the women's prison "resulted in infrahuman conditions because of the lack of space and hygiene, and as a result illnesses spread".

The repression against women was especially cruel in Malaga, home to writers and openly republican intellectuals such as Isabel Oyarzábal, María Zambrano and Victoria Kent herself, all of whom were well-known for calling for equality and high levels of independence until well into the 1930s.

Those advances regressed under the narrow Francoist morality, which demanded submission to masculine wishes, as reported in publications from the Women's Section of the Falange: "When your husband returns from work, offer to take his shoes off for him. Minimise any noise. If you have a hobby of some type, try not to bore him by talking about it. If you need to apply face cream or hair rollers, wait until he is asleep before doing so. If he feels the need to sleep, so be it. If he suggests intercourse, then consent humbly, bearing in mind that his satisfaction is more important than yours".

In the women's jails, the authorities obliged the prisoners to go to Mass and to christen their children, who were often imprisoned with them. The poor hygienic conditions and lack of food created a desperate situation: exhausted prisoners without sufficient resources to look after their children. Some of those children died behind bars.

The prison in Malaga was no exception. The women were served hard 'almortas' (seeds from a member of the pea family which was banned for human consumption in 1967 because of their high toxicity) and vegetables which had been neither washed nor peeled. Suffering from ulcers and stomach pains, the women protested: they organised a hunger strike and succeeded in getting the potatoes and some other vegetables washed. Another protest obtained them a second shower, although there was never hot water.

"Life there was horrible. There were only eight women when I arrived, but it quickly filled up. The food, the guards, the deaths of other prisoners, the interrogations, the punishment cells...there are so many things to be told," said Luisa, one of the witnesses quoted in the book written by Barranquero, Eiroa and Navarro after talking to several of these women.

"We were amazed by these interviews, so surprised at the women's strength. They had the conviction that they had done nothing wrong, only fight for freedom and social equality," says Eiroa.

Political affiliation

About 38 per cent of the prisoners had told the authorities they were married, 18 per cent widowed and more than 17 per cent single. The marital status of the remainder is unknown. This lack of information, say the researchers, could be because many women wanted to keep quiet about their relationships, maybe because they weren't married to their partners or because of their political affiliation. Most of the women in the jail in Malaga were aged between 21 and 40, although the repression extended to all age groups ranging from between 13 and 85.

More than 60 per cent of the prisoners were from elsewhere in the province. The rest lived in Malaga city or had been sent to the prison from other provinces. The few women who could read and write used to teach the others, although those classes were not part of the official work schedule at the prison. That included tasks "suitable for their sex", such as sewing.

From 1940 the number of women sent to the jail for supposed crimes of rebellion dropped, and the number for "transgression of the socio-economic order" increased. In a city ravaged by hunger and typhus, the ruses used to obtain food became one of the most common reasons for arrest, although in many cases there was no record of the reason the women were imprisoned. Once inside, they would try to overcome their hunger by eating pieces of dry orange peel as if they were sweets. Today, the building still has the large courtyard which, together with the chapel, became the focus of prison life.

To obtain a reduced sentence the women had to show repentence and convert to catholicism. In 1944, the Jesús El Rico procession in the Malaga Easter processions freed 19 women as well as the usual male prisoner, although in fact most of them had already been granted their release .

"They chose the women who looked in the best condition", says Barranquero. "It was a way of whitewashing over what was happening. When the prisoners needed certificates of conduct, it was the priests who decided whether their behaviour in the jails had been good enough or not".

At the ceremony before the El Rico procession, the then director of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Mariano Puigdoller, gave a short speech: "You must be eternally grateful to the Caudillo," he told the women. "Pray to God that he is with us for many years to come".

The narrow cells, the uncomfortable beds and the incidence of illnesses and epidemics complicated the situation even more. "The mortality rate was high. Women died from TB or typhus. Their time in prison was also characterised by little chance of visits, despair and psychological and physical collapse" says Barranquero.

The children stayed with their mothers, if there were no other relatives to look after them, until they were three or six years old, in accordance with the law at the time. After that they were sent to state and religious institutions. The presence of the children in the jails is not recorded in the files, something which complicated subsequent research, although witnesses say that most of them were adopted or sent to became seminarians, with the aim of wiping out any relationship with the past.

Concepción Gallardo was one of the women freed by El Rico, although in fact she had already been given her release letter and had to wait until the procession was held before she could leave the jail. Her son, José Sánchez, president of the Association against Silence and Oblivion, says that on the rare occasions that his mother received a visit from a relative, she would give them some of their clothes and ask them to disinfect them.

Before being transferred to Malaga, Concepción had been arrested in Loja, imprisoned in Granada and then moved to Gerona. A nun had told her that a couple wanted to take her daughter, who was only a few months old, so she had given her to her mother-in-law. In her file, she is described as a "person of extremely bad conduct and an active communist".

Even when freed, life wasn't much easier. The stigma of having been imprisoned stayed with most of these women all their lives, and they usually had to try to feed their families while earning miserable salaries. Only after Franco died, once the regressive storm had passed, did some of these women receive any recognition. In 'Desde la noche y la niebla', communist leader Juana Doña, who was given a death sentence in 1947, criticised the fact that "barely a few lines have been dedicated to women in the river of books written about the Civil War".

In 'En el infierno', politician and author Lidia Falcón also paid tribute to women and criticised the fact that so many authors gave a purely masculine slant to their writings.

The women's prison La Goleta closed its doors in 1954, when the prisoners were moved to the provincial jail on the Cártama road. The building became the Penitentiary Geriatric Institution and, years later, the headquarters of the Malaga Local Police. That particular hell had come to an end.

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