“Jail is a great teacher. Prison accentuates the evils of a system. In that closed world, directly subjected to state authority, the prisoner begins to understand principles that are not clear outside.” The Duchess of Medina Sidonia’s comment on her eight months’ incarceration as a political prisoner in Spanish jails sums up the merits of her book. Through it, as though in a photographic negative, we see many of the realities of contemporary Spain.

The duchess was imprisoned for leading a peaceful demonstration of villagers. It took place at Palomares, a village on the Mediterranean coast unknown until a SAC bomber, refueling on its return from the borders of the Soviet Union, crashed there with its load of hydrogen bombs in 1966. The danger of radioactive contamination from the bombs’ split cases was sufficiently great for the US military to scrape off the village’s topsoil and ship it for burial to the US.

The impact on the villagers, needless to say, was dramatic. Not only was their livelihood from the sea (where a bomb lay undiscovered for months) and land jeopardized but their lives were endangered. The US authorities promised full compensation and satisfaction—a promise confirmed by the Spanish government. But once the affair was forgotten by the world’s press, so too, the villagers claimed, was the full compensation, as well as the results of the radiation tests. (Instead they were treated to the ludicrous spectacle of the US ambassador dipping himself in the sea to reassure them that there was no danger.) After legal recourse had failed, the villagers decided, a year after the event, to march on the US embassy in Madrid. They invited the duchess to march with them.

The invitation was not accidental. Isabel Alvarez de Toledo y Maura was a teen-ager when, on her father’s death after the war, she inherited the title to one of the oldest Spanish noble houses. She didn’t “get on with her world”; she was an aristocrat révoltée, a young woman who had not lived through the civil war. Though her house was not one of the great latifundist landowners of Spain, she inherited land in Andalusia, and her most famous act was to give most of this away to her tenants to set up a cooperative. Her uncompromising views on her own class and the regime, though she was herself a member of no opposition party, was bound sooner or later to lead her into conflict with the state.

The marchers had gone 200 yards down the road from Palomares when she was arrested: demonstrations, however peaceful, are a threat to a regime which congratulates itself on the “peace” it has brought to Spain for the past thirty-three years. The demonstration was stopped before it could start.

Tradition has it that the nobility in Spain is not publicly punished. The duchess was under no such illusion in her case.

My offense lay in the fact that I had openly sided with people who did not enjoy the privileges of the nobility. That is to say, I had taken the part of citizens not belonging to the oligarchy, whether titled or not.

She was right. The Court of Public Order, established to try political cases, sentenced her to one year in prison and a fine of 10,000 pesetas ($142). It had no more hesitation in sentencing a traitor to her class than it has had in imprisoning any political dissenter. (Currently, according to Amnesty International, which bases its figures on those provided by the regime, there are some 900 prisoners in Spanish jails who have been, or are waiting to be, tried by the Court of Public Order.)

Mother of three young children, the duchess began to serve her sentence in March, 1969. The conditions she found in the women’s prison of Alcalá de Henares, where she served most of her term, were almost indescribably horrible. The prison was rat-infested, unheated, without running water except in the yard, or proper sanitation; sometimes human excrement was piled three feet high by the blocked up latrines. When not actually rotting, the food was inadequate and inedible. Medical attention barely existed. And over the prison, with all the arbitrariness of the Spanish petty bureaucrat, ruled a male warden.

With indomitable courage and at the risk of spending time in solitary confinement or of having her sentence increased, the duchess fought a running battle to improve prison conditions and to secure her own and the other inmates’ rights. The situation came to a head in the blazing Castilian summer when the prison’s water supply gave out completely. The other prisoners were too cowed to protest. ” ‘You go. They’d lock us in our cells. You, on the other hand, can get away with it,’ ” they said to her. Crazed with thirst, some of the women had meanwhile resorted to drinking from a cistern where a decomposing rat floated on the water.


The duchess succeeded in getting the prison commissary opened but it had run out of anything to drink. She appealed to a guard. ” ‘Let me tell you,’ the guard replied, ‘it’s the same thing outside. In my house there’s no water.’ ” The duchess then suggested that water should be brought from a nearby cavalry barracks where, as she knew, they had several water wagons. “I had seen them when I had taken part in the Alcalá horse show.” She was told to show respect and not tell the authorities how to run the prison.

During this three-day drought an inmate went mad. She undressed in front of a nun, danced, and screamed that she needed to make love. After a night in the infirmary, she was returned to her cell with only a mattress on the floor, where she incessantly called for water. The cell floor was wet with her urine, the walls covered with her own excrement. The duchess and other inmates agreed not to return to their cells until the girl was properly cared for. Finally, after two days and a night, the girl was taken to a psychiatric hospital where her legs and hands were tied down to prevent her from masturbating. She had a terrible mania for water and drank all the time when she could, and at night started screaming when she had none. She was untied only when she calmed down.

Such incidents, and others of incredible arbitrariness, are frequent in this account, as are the duchess’s attempts, more often successful than not, to change these conditions. The Alcalá prison was undoubtedly a terrible one; even warders from another prison asked inmates how they could put up with the conditions. There are other prisons as bad, though not all, as we know from another rare account by Miguel Garcia, a Spanish political prisoner.* Some even compare favorably with those described by George Jackson, to take but one example. But it is not ultimately the conditions inside prison by which a regime can be judged; it is the conditions outside, the reasons for which people are incarcerated, that mirror a regime’s reality.

“Only in one place in Spain can one talk freely, exchange views on the future, discuss intelligently, and that is in jail,” says a jailed farmer in Garcia’s book. “We are the true Cortes, from every province, from every town, of all opinions…. Those who speak in Madrid do not represent the country.”

Unlike Garcia, who was sentenced to death for his part in an anarchist resistance group—a sentence commuted to thirty years’ imprisonment—the duchess refrains from reporting conversations with other prisoners on political matters. This no doubt is because her account was first published in a Spanish weekly. However, her dealings with the prison authorities reflect the state of mind of Spain’s rulers. In despair at the warden’s obscurantism, she one day appealed to him:

We of the younger generation, those who did not take part in the war, are asked by our elders to engage in dialogue with them, to present our problems in a constructive way, proposing solutions. But when we do this the replies are always the same: threats and reprisals.

The warden grew serious. “Very well. To show you I don’t mind entering into a dialogue, let’s talk. Until three in the morning if you like, for I don’t sleep….” He then began a monologue so interminable that she could not answer, so oppressive that finally she fainted.

So much for dialogue. “That night I swore I would never register another complaint.” The duchess had learned what a political prisoner like Garcia had known for the past twenty years. He countered the prison authorities with political arguments at every opportunity, and in the month that the duchess was incarcerated he emerged from jail after twenty years’ imprisonment, almost blind but still unbowed.

The duchess was informed one day that her work in the school prison to which she had been assigned would not count toward remission. Instead she had been given the task of writing a book on eighteenth-century Spain. A privilege, it would seem; in fact, part of the war of nerves between the prison authorities and her. First, the authorities would not confirm the order officially; then, when they did, she was given six days to produce 100 typescript pages. She succeeded, and was told she had earned sixty days remission; the following day she was told it was not sixty but thirty.

But the task was also a trap. If she wrote anything that could be faintly suspected of subversive thought, not only would her remission be lost but her original sentence could be increased. Thus she produced 500 pages on the eighteenth century without so much as mentioning the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Those 500 pages eventually earned her four months’ remission.


Earlier she had turned down a chance of a pardon by refusing to repent. Instead she harangued the prison board, almost half of which was composed of nuns, arguing that the Palomares case had been “made possible by treaties with the US, signed by a Spanish government no one has elected.” Then, to show her determination, she shaved off her hair. “Surely you realize I can’t face the outside world looking like this,” she told prison officials, in whom she now noted a new respect. When she staged a hunger strike to protest the fatal shooting of two workers during a demonstration, the officials made no attempt to stop her, although hunger strikes are strictly forbidden.

On her release she wrote a series of articles about her experiences. The Madrid weekly which published them was shortly afterward banned for four months. The government alleged disrespect (concerning her articles) and immorality (concerning a picture of two girls in bathing suits). In fact neither of these was the real cause. The magazine had earlier run articles on the Matesa scandal, a $140 million swindle in official export credits. The scandal had important political implications, as is evidenced by the fact that four ministers or ex-ministers were removed from office.

As a result of her articles, and on account of a novel entitled The Strike, which she had published in France, the duchess was threatened with arrest and the possibility of eighteen years’ imprisonment on different counts. Three days before her arrest was due she crossed the frontier to France. Here her prison memoirs end. Everything else continues. The Court of Public Order has just been enlarged to handle the cases that pile up (eighty-seven listed for the month of November alone); in the streets strikes are repressed with bloodshed. But there is one change. It is no longer only working-class militants like Garcia who go to jail; priests, students of middle-class background, and intellectuals have joined them.

Some eighteen months after the duchess left Spain, the government proclaimed an amnesty which specifically covered those implicated in the Matesa scandal. The pardon came before the accused had even been sentenced. A regime betrays itself also by those it does not imprison.

This Issue

April 5, 1973