Photograph by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By Ian Mount
December 2, 2014

In the years since Spain’s real estate bubble burst, the nation’s denizens have grown accustomed to the sight of unfinished housing complexes, from the outskirts of Zaragoza, to the Madrid suburbs, and Costa del Sol vacation towns. They’ve even gotten used to mothballed airports near Valencia and Madrid.

Now, they can add prisons to the list of buildings caught by the bubble’s pop. After opening eight prison facilities in 2011 and two in 2012, Spain has kept vacant four recently completed jails with a total of 3,300 cells. Meanwhile, 26 cellblocks in five other jails sit empty.

The economic reasons to keep the new prisons closed are straightforward: it costs a lot of money to incarcerate someone.

To open and run the new 1,008-cell Málaga II prison in Archidona—built for €117 million—would require 550 staff members, says Ángel Moreno, the general secretary of prisons at the CCOO union. In post-crisis Spain, paying a company to keep it secure, maintained, and clean—albeit empty—looks like a comparative bargain at €3.27 million a year.

“The problem with these prisons is that they cost money. They operate 24/7. And in Spain there is no new government hiring,” says Marcelo Aebi, a professor of criminology at Switzerland’s Lausanne University.

But Spain’s white elephant prisons are not just another symptom of the country’s financial difficulties. They also show how economic motives have pushed governments in Spain and around the world to embrace alternatives to incarceration that were not viable just a few years ago.

Academics have long noted that increasing sentence lengths, and therefore the long-term prison population, does little to fight crime. Still, being tough on crime has paid dividends to politicians in countries like Spain. Although Spain has had low crime rates compared to other European countries, it has one of the highest incarceration rates, beaten only by the UK and a few Eastern European countries. Spain toughened its penal code in 1995 and 2003, and the prison population shot up from 33,000 in 1990 to 76,000 in 2009, according to figures from the country’s statistics bureau, the INE.

In the wake of the economic crisis, though, citizens began to worry less about crime. According to data from the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicos (CIS), which takes monthly surveys for the Spanish government, the percentage of people citing crime as one of their three biggest concerns fell from the 20-30% range in the early 2000s to under 3% today.

“It was a very big theme in the past, but not now. It’s unemployment, immigration, corruption. So there is not the enormous pressure to build prisons,” says Elena Larrauri, a professor of criminal law and criminology at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

In this context, the Spanish government began to rethink its penal code, and in 2010 it introduced two important changes: the maximum sentence for minor drug trafficking crimes was lowered from nine to six years, and judges were given more leeway to expel foreigner prisoners who’d served part of their sentence (at the time, over a third of the prison population was foreign).

Spain’s prison population immediately began to drop, and today there are fewer than 66,000 people in Spanish jails. Between 2010 and 2014, the budget for the nation’s prison system fell by about 9%.

Spain is not alone in moving away from an expensive, lengthy-sentence incarceration model. Sweden and the Netherlands have closed jails amid drops in prison population in part due to shorter sentences and more emphasis on fines and community service.

The cost of incarceration has even led to a rethink in the U.S. The state prison population (which grew 708% between 1972 and 2008) posted a 0.3% drop in 2009, the system’s first decrease in 38 years. The drop in the inmate population comes partly on the heels of a fall in the crime rate in the U.S. since the 1990s. Several states have also dialed down the length of sentences for drug-related offenses and have begun to rely more on prison alternatives.

Lower sentences and prison alternatives have even been taken up by right-leaning groups like Texas’s Right On Crime as a way to cut big government spending. In 2007, the Texas legislature learned that by 2012 the state would need to spend $1.13 billion for 17,000 new prison beds to accommodate the growing prison population. Instead, the legislature allocated money to non-residential treatment programs for non-violent offenders and non-resident juvenile programs. The number of inmates in Texas fell from about 172,500 in 2008 to 152,000 in 2012. The state even closed a prison, the first time it had done so in 166 years.

In Spain, what to do with the country’s brand new, empty jails is an open question. The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is again talking about reforming the penal code and toughening sentences. That gives union head Ángel Moreno hope that an influx of prisoners could justify opening the new buildings and hiring new personnel. There’s one hitch: the current government doesn’t like them because it says that, with pools and plasma TVs, they are too luxurious.

Spain’s prison towns could always follow the lead of Helsinki; Boston; Oxford, UK; and Ottawa, Canada, where closed jails have been converted into trendy hotels.

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