Catalan ministers tell of life behind bars after 32 days in prison
Josep Rull recalls a public servant telling him “to rot in prison” when he arrived
On November 2, eight Catalan ministers were sent to prison in Madrid for their role in Catalonia’s push for independence. The precautionary measures were later reassessed, and six of them — Dolors Bassa, Meritxell Borràs, Carles Mundó, Raül Romeva, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull — were released on December 4 after spending 32 days in jail. Yet, vice president Oriol Junqueras and Home Affairs minister Joaquim Forn remain behind bars, along with civil society leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, who entered jail on October 16.
The inmates were allowed to make one call a day, each lasting no longer than 10 minutes. Catalan newspapers often published letters by the ministers reassuring their commitment to defending Catalonia’s right to self-determination. Additionally, after visiting them in jail, the defendants’ lawyers often told the press that they were doing all right.
However, most details of the ministers’ stay in jail remained unknown until six of them were released and began to recall their experiences in their first public appearances and interviews.
Paradoxically, some of the harshest moments of their 32 days in prison came even before entering jail. While being interviewed at the National Court, Presidency minister Jordi Turull recalled how judge Carmen Lamela did not pay any attention to them. “Our lawyer was asking us questions and nobody was listening to us,” he said in an interview with RAC1 radio. “They were playing on the phone and with the computer — the judge as well.”
The decision of their preemptive imprisonment came as a surprise. At some point, they noticed that there were more police officers than normal. First, they called vice president Oriol Junqueras in. After him came another minister. “Then you learn about the prison without bail,” says Turull. “You sign a paper, and when you leave, police officers are waiting for you with the handcuffs. You offer your hands, and they tell you ‘No, we’ll handcuff you behind your back.’”
Ministers had their belongings taken away —such as belts, glasses and wedding rings— and put inside a police van. Justice minister Carles Mundó, who was handcuffed behind his back, reportedly suffered injuries on one of his hands. He also recalled that Guardia Civil police officers repeatedly played the Spanish anthem on their phones. Ministers said that they did not put the safety belt on them.
“While we were doing all the paperwork, they told us that they were moving us again and that we will all be in Estremera [prison]. Obviously, this was a decision taken at the [Spanish] ministerial level for reasons that we’ll know someday"
Raül Romeva · Catalan Foreign Affairs minister
They were all sent to prisons in the Madrid area: Estremera for the six male ministers; Alcalá Meco for the two female officials. "Estremera does not reflect the reality of Spanish prisons," said Mundó, but is instead "the most decent one they have on display".
Yet, the initial plan was to keep them in different centers. “While we were doing all the paperwork, they told us that they were moving us again and that we will all be in Estremera,” said Foreign Affairs minister Raül Romeva. “Obviously, this was a decision taken at the [Spanish] ministerial level for reasons that we’ll know someday.”
When he arrived in jail, a public servant told Territory minister Josep Rull that “the time for your stupidity is over”. He replied: “Our ‘stupidity’ is not over and it will never be”. Rull recalled his experience in an interview with Catalonia’s public radio, and he stressed that most of the prison workers he met were polite and amicable. According to Rull, the public servant responded with a last comment: “Then you’ll be left to rot in jail. You’ll spend so many years here that you’ll end up knowing it by heart.”
A month in prison
The ministers were confined in cells in pairs. Turull shared his cell with Rull, Romeva with Forn, Borràs with Bassa, and Mundó with Junqueras. In total, they spent 16 hours a day in the cell, said Mundó.
According to Rull, the cell measured 10m2 and had two bunk beds, a bathroom and a window. He recalls seeing his cellmate, Turull, smoking a cigarette at the window, next to the bars. “It was a very moving image,” he said.
According to Rull, the relationship with the other inmates was very good. “There were people jailed for murders, homicides, rapes, drugtrafficking,” he said, but added that “there were tones of humanity”.
During their time in jail, the ministers tried to join the activities put on by the prison. Rull played table tennis with a Vietnamese inmate. Bassa and Borràs took ceramic courses and went to the gym. Some of the ministers met at mass. Turull recalls enrolling in a workshop called ‘Peace is possible’, but they were rejected.
Yet, what helped them the most during their imprisonment were the letters that they received. “They touched our soul,” said Rull. They received letters in such great numbers that when they were released they gave them three boxes full of letters that they did not have time to classify.
On the day of their release, Rull and Turull wore their suits — they had ironed them by extending them under the mattress the night before and sleeping on them. As they were leaving, Rull recalls hearing the cheers and applauses of the other inmates.
However, although six Catalan leaders were released, four remained behind bars. The sadness of knowing that his cellmate and colleague Junqueras would remain in jail was greater than the happiness of being released, said Mundó. "I can't stop thinking about him," he said. "I can imagine what he might be doing at every minute."