This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
Marcos Hernández Garrido is currently living on the streets in Barcelona, but recently spent a few months in prison. I was introduced to him by the #HomelessEntrepreneur initiative, which aims to make homeless people more visible in their cities and ultimately help them get off the streets.
Marcos is currently trying to improve his circumstances, but told me he doesn't mind talking about his time at Barcelona's La Modelo prison – where he was sent after a street fight. "I am open to talking about my experience; I have no fear of anything," he said. "I actually want people to know what it's like."
VICE: How were the other prisoners? Did you like them?
Marcos Hernández Garrido: There were all kinds of people in jail – nice people and arseholes. It's just like in the world outside. The same went for the guards working there. There was one guard at my prison who was a great guy. When I came in for the first time he gave me six cigarettes and told me, "Make good use of them." I don't remember his name, but I'll never forget that moment.
What was your favourite food in prison?
We had a different meal for every day of the week – cannelloni on Mondays, for example, and steak on Wednesdays. The steak was great, actually. People went fucking nuts on Wednesdays to be the first in the queue to get a steak. If you were one of the first you could maybe go for another round later – that wasn't an option if you were one of the last in the queue. The food I had in prison was actually pretty good and varied.
What happens when you meet a prison bully?
You'll recognise the prison bullies right away – they give off the air that they won't hesitate to eat you alive. But if a bully tries anything with you, it's not an option to report it. You have to protect yourself and face it. When something happened between two prisoners at my prison, their issues were usually solved by a fight in the bathrooms. If two men fought in the courtyard, they would be sent to solitary confinement as punishment. You can't smoke in there, you can't read any magazines or listen to music and you're only allowed to go out for an hour a day. After that experience most people learn not to get into trouble again.
What is it like to be in solitary confinement?
I've never been there as punishment. I had scabies at the time I was sent to prison – a skin disease I caught from a mattress someone had left on the street. Because of that skin disease, they isolated me in the psychology ward – the only ward where they had some space for me. They held me there for four days until I got better. The room they put me in was completely white and didn't have corners. You can't really do anything. There was a window that looked out to the sky, and I was allowed to go out for lunch and dinner.
The second night I was there I had a nightmare and a nervous breakdown. There was a button in the room to call a guard, so I pushed the button hoping a guard would come and give me a diazepam. When the guards finally arrived hours later, they were very aggressive and asked why the fuck I had bothered them. One of them looked like he was about to slap me in the face.
What would you say to young people who are taking their first steps on a criminal path?
Whatever you do, don't hurt anyone. Violence won't lead you anywhere. I can understand that someone steals or commits a crime out of desperation, but try to do the right thing – however hard it might be. You'll regret it otherwise. There are always alternatives.
Do people of specific ethnicities and nationalities really exclusively hang out together in prison?
Yes, and it makes sense. If you were caught smuggling drugs in a country you don't really know and you were sent to prison, you would try to find people of your own nationality, too. It's not strange to have more affinity with people who speak your language, who grew up in the same circumstances as you. You look for your own people when you're feeling lonely in there.
How do you feel about the death penalty?
You won't find many rich people on death row, and I think that answers your question. If you do find a couple of rich people there, come back to me with that same question.
What good can come from having been in jail?
Nothing. We need to restructure our social system – people now go to jail because of social inequality, mostly. Many people are born with hardly any options. We're being told our whole life that you need a lot of money to mean anything in this world, and that the only ways to get it are working too much, having rich parents or doing something illegal. We're told that we are nothing and we have nothing if we don't have wealth.
To be fair, they do offer some programmes in prison to make it easier to get back into society when you're released. You can read books, go to the gym and there are workshops – you could even get your degree in something. That's useful.
What was the first thing you did when you were released?
I went to see my people. I wasn't in touch with my family, but the first thing I did was go see the people I love, my closest friends. The community in prison follows basically the same rules as the community in my old neighbourhood did – you can't be a rat or act smart, issues are resolved with your firsts and there are some shady deals going on. There's definitely a sense of community in prison, but you don't have the people you really love around you.
How has being in prison changed you?
Prison changes some people for the better – those who get a degree and decide to make something of themselves – and others for the worse. Some ex-cons get a degree in criminal dealings in prison, because they learn how to be better at committing crimes next time.
For me, personally, I appreciated my freedom more, I realised how nice it is to be able to just walk down the street. And I thought a lot about people who mean something to me – I discovered I shouldn't fight with my girlfriend while I was locked up, because it freaked me out. It made me see more clearly how unfair the world is. And lastly, I know know that, whatever happens, I don't ever want to be back there again.
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