Lonely Planet Writer

Notorious Spanish jail switches from greeting prisoners to tourists in under a year

Barcelona’s infamous La Model prison finally closed its doors to prisoners for the last time in June 2017, just before its 113th anniversary. This year however, they have opened again, but this time for guided tours.

Barcelona’s infamous La Model prison opens for visitors. Photo by: Dan Convey

The free tours let visitors explore some of the most iconic parts of the prison, including the exercise yard, cells, visitors’ room, as well as places such as its tiny library and even dentist.

La Model was originally created to be an innovative and model prison (hence the name), and took much of its inspiration from the thesis of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Designed by Salvador Vinyals Sabaté and Josep Domènech Estap, it’s a grand and somewhat elegant building, consisting of a central control tower with six galleries stretching out from the middle. At the time, it was a modern institution, which even featured shops and barbers.

La Model control centre. Photo by: Esme Fox

The prison was built to house 1000 inmates, but during the Spanish Civil War, this number rose to 13,000. The tour takes visitors to see inside the prison’s small cells, where inmates lived in cramped and squalid conditions. Much of them remain untouched, just as they were – metal bunk beds, small wash basins, and even graffiti left by its former residents.

Many of the inmates at La Model, particularly during the Franco regime, were political prisoners, and throughout this time around 1000 people were executed within its walls. The tour even includes a visit to the prison post room, where these executions once took place. Today, all that remains is a small concrete square where the execution chair stood.

Interior of La Model prison. Photo by: Dan Convey

By the 1970s and 80s, La Model had become a horrific and terrible institution, a far cry from what it was designed for. Violence, murders, suicide and drugs were rife and the city had grown up around it, causing problems between the neighbours and the inmates. By the 21st century, La Model began to fall into a state of disrepair and renovations became too costly.

While the future of the entire prison has still yet to be decided, 2019 will see the creation of a new memorial space, with exhibits about the history of the prison and the inmates who lived there.

Free guided tours of La Model currently take place on Fridays from 3-6pm and Saturdays from 10am-6pm. There is also an exhibition space, hosting temporary art exhibits, open during the same hours, as well as on Sundays from 10am-1pm.

By Esme Fox