1 of 4
2 of 4
3 of 4
4 of 4
On March 30th, the first phase of demolition began on La Modelo, a historic prison situated in the midst of the Eixample. And it has been a long time coming. Occupying two full blocks close to Sants railway station—between Rosselló, Provença, Nicaragua and Entença—this still-functioning prison looms over the city as a symbolic witness of the turbulent history that Catalunya has seen since it opened in 1904.
Twenty eight years have passed since the then Minister of Justice, Agustí Bassols, announced the closure of La Modelo in 1987 and at least 40 since there was a general consensus that the prison needed to be replaced. Indeed, its dilapidated appearance suggests that upkeep has been minimal in recent years, with crumbling walls lending an air of abandonment and melancholy to its surroundings. Currently housing 1,200 prisoners, a figure that has steadily decreased over recent years (from 1,600 in 2013), the prison will close its doors for good in 2017, by which time there will be two brand new centres built in Zona Franca as part of a city-wide reshuffle.
Not surprisingly, a large number of political prisoners have been held within these walls over the last century, and it has been the scene of almost 1,000 executions, the first of which was anarchist Joan Rull, in 1908. During the Twenties, the place was teeming with those opposed to the regime of Primo de Rivera, who christened it ‘la universidad de los pobres’ (the poor man’s university), as classes and conferences often took place within the prison. Similarly, during Franco’s regime, it was known as 'la isla ideológica' (the ideological island), because inmates felt that they could debate ideas and exchange opinions more freely on the inside than out. Then, there were more than 13,000 prisoners in a centre that was designed (at the time) to hold 850. The conditions were appalling and many died or committed suicide due to the poor sanitary conditions and lack of space.
As to be expected, these walls have also seen more than their fair share of characters. One such villain, Juan Jose Moreno Cuenca, commonly known as El Vaquilla, inspired songs by Los Chichos and Los Chunguitos, and even a film—Yo, El Vaquilla (1985). Hailing from La Mina, Moreno led a life of crime, which started early when he robbed his first car aged 11. He had to prop himself up on a cushion because his feet didn’t reach the pedals. He first entered La Modelo at 18 and spent 30 years coming and going. Following one of his releases he lasted just five days on the outside, during which time he managed to commit 13 crimes. In 1984, he was the ringleader of a famous riot in the prison, which, rumour has it, started after Moreno requested to take a shower and resulted in the escape of many prisoners. He learnt to read and write in La Modelo; he studied law and even wrote articles for the press.
Another notable inmate was Raymond Vaccarizi, the head of Lyon’s mafia in the Eighties and one of the most wanted men in France at the time. His cell was situated on the third floor, which somebody must have known about, as on July 14th, 1984, when he approached the window to speak to his wife outside on the street, he was shot dead by a sniper, who fired two bullets from the attic of a building on Carrer de Provença. Apparently, Vaccarizi had clocked that there was a real possibility of murdering an inmate from the outside and had shared his ideas with a fellow prisoner, who then informed a rival gang.
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are soon to be buried in the past as the locals look forward to finally lifting this desolate cloud from their neighbourhood. Understandably, many feel that it drags down the reputation of the area, which would otherwise be prime real estate, just a stone’s throw from Sants. Others admit that it is just not pleasant to have a prison on your doorstep.
Future plans are not yet fully defined, although the first phase will see a new park, with an area of 1,214 square metres, in the corner between Carrer del Rosselló and Carrer d’Entença, which will include a small memorial to the historic prison. It is anticipated that the first phase of demolition and the construction of the park will cost €370,500 and will be complete by this autumn.
It remains to be seen how the rest of the area will be developed, although previous schemes have included a nursery, primary school, nursing home, day centre, student residence and sports centre. The mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, has promised a public consultation with people from the local area to determine future plans, so that the neighbourhood can turn the page and embark on a new era, where the decrepit remnants of the past are gone, but not forgotten.