O Vello Cárcere (The Old Gaol)

The old jail is a building in the centre of Lugo outside its Roman wall. Built in 1887 it was once the newest jail of its type: A shining  example of the latest thinking on jail design.

The Front of O Vello Cárcere:
Photo taken from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFKqk7uHz2Q

Now refurbished and redesigned to be cultural centre it’s part museum, part memorial and part art gallery.

The old jail offices are now a museum of the jail itself spanning from its commission,  to its ascendence to infamy and until the modern day

What were once the cells are now exhibition spaces, but the thick metal doors remain.

The ground floor interior courtyard complete with the wooden octagon where the interior guard tower once stood

On the ground floor you wander into cells that describe how the Spanish Civil War changed the jail’s role.

After the war the jail became a place for the imprisonment and  even execution of political prisoners.

There were no big battles in Galicia and unlike in the south of Spain I’ve seen no bullet-pocked buildings from sieges here.

Galicia never saw the same  bloody fighting of the Spanish Civil War that other parts of Spain did, its sons had to travel to other parts of the peninsular to kill each other.

Galicia’s war was ideological and cultural. Intellectuals rounded up imprisoned and exterminated

The long list of names, hundreds of political prisoners who spent time in the jail throughout the 20th century is harrowing.

You see also the occupations of these prisoners:

Neil Wykes 2017

Teachers, journalists, farmers, printers, writers and housewives; all imprisoned for their political views and actions

Stunned into contemplation I considered left to consider the fragility of ideas.

That the rule of law, women’s rights, secularism and  freedom of expression can disappear, that civility is only a verbal contract

In other cells there are stories about groups and individuals.

Photos of them in normal life before prison, before they were executed by firing squads. In one room the architecture of the jail is described.

The design, in part inspired by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who imagined the ideal jail The Panopticon

Plan of a Panopticon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bentham philosophised that if a criminal were watched twenty-four hours a day they would be turned into model, reformed civilians. So he designed the Panopticon: A perfect cylindrical jail.

Cells line the interior of the cylinder, the windows looking out toward the outside world and freedom

The cell doors face the interior courtyard would be left open as much as possible

The guard tower in the in the centre meant that inmates could be watched at all times. In his plan, the way the tower’s windows were lit from the exterior meant that the prisoners would never be able to tell if they were being watched or not.

Over time they would internalise the feeling of being watched and  carry the prison guard with them at all times

Jeremy Bentham never lived to see an example of his theoretical jail built, but after his death many jails built inspired by his ideas, including the jail in Lugo.

The first time I heard about the Panopticon and the philosophy behind it was in an episode of Benjamin Walker’s Theory Of Everything podcast:

Many believe that the modern surveillance and espionage state is as much a  Panopticon as these jails:

A country’s security forces are the guardtower opaquely snooping on its citizens who live their lives with less and less privacy.

To see an example of a panopticon jail was fascinating. A philosophy,  made concrete albeit in semi-circular form.

Suddenly the striking wooden octagon in the centre of the new cultural centre’s courtyard was less of a bold design choice and more of a scar of a long debunked idea

As I explored the cells and read more examples of the horrors the inmates suffered I began to see that my first impression had been wrong.

Ideas are not fragile. Ideas are built from something durable. It’s people who are fragile. They can be tempted into dehumanising, cruelty and violence on behalf of some greater good, a mere idea(l).

Ideas may be to crush and buckle people. When people and ideas clash people rarely survive unharmed.

The buildings inspired by the ideas that people wield sometimes last longer than the ideas themselves, as is the case with O Vello Carcere

What we choose to do with these buildings once we’ve dropped some ideas and picked up others says a lot about our intentions and hopes for society.

Which ideas do you choose to arm yourself with?

Should I worry if we were to meet one day in a dark alley?

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