A single female inmate played football with 21 male criminals in a jail in northwestern Spain, as part of a drive for mixed prison living that is still uncommon in Europe.
“Let go of the ball!” Ambra, a 25-year-old Albanian who preferred not to be identified, yelled at one of her male teammates.
She pushed them as hard as they pushed her in order to win control of the ball.
“Why should prison be the only place without mixed spaces?” she wanted to know.
Men and women have been cohabiting since 2021 in one wing of the Teixeiro prison near La Coruna in Spain’s verdant Galicia region.
The aim is to better prepare inmates for their reintegration into society once they are released.
Twenty of the 55 inmates in the jail’s Nelson Mandela cell block are women.
They and the men take part together in daily activities such as exercise, group therapy and vocational training.
They work and eat together.
The rest of the time, they live in separate cells although in the same hallway.
Inmates must volunteer to be part of this block and are selected based on their behaviour.
Prisoners convicted of se.xual violence are excluded.
At the canteen, inmate Cristina prepared meals with other women and men, while at the gym Helga worked out with her male counterparts.
‘Prepare for life’
Spain, a European reference for women’s rights, has been experimenting with coed jails for over two decades.
In Spain, there are currently 20 mixed-gender cell blocks where 202 women and 925 men participate in cooperative activities.
That is only a small proportion of Spain’s total prison population of roughly 47,000.
However, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government has encouraged the country’s jail system to expand these mixed-gender cell blocks.
“It makes no sense for you to prepare for life outside jail with only half of the population,” said the deputy director of the Teixeiro prison, Nadia Arias.
She claims that coed jail cells helped prisoners adjust to life in a society where men and women coexist.
According to Arias, the effort also allows women prisoners, who are significantly fewer in number, to access the same services and programs as men.
Ricardo, a serial offender who has served time in solitary confinement, said he was hesitant to relocate to the mixed-gender cell block since he had “spent a lot of time with men.”
Now he says he prefers it since there are fewer tensions.
In an all-male prison block respect is earned by defending your belongings, and a “dirty look could lead to a knife fight or a fist fight”, the 47-year-old said.
Ambra, the 25-year-old Albanian, said men in the mixed-gender block sometimes misinterpret her friendliness and think she “wants to hook up, or something like that”.
“So I put up a barrier,” she explained.
Ana Suarez, a counselor at Erguete, a non-governmental organization that assists people suffering addictions and works with inmates in jail, stated that “sexist behavior occurs inside prison just as much as it does outside.”
The prison offers workshops to inmates on “deconstructing masculinity”.
The prison’s management said it has not experienced “any serious incidents” in the mixed block, which was in “great demand” from inmates wishing to join it.
Elsewhere in Europe, mixed jail blocks are not common.
In neighbouring France, for example, where coed incarceration has been authorised since 2009, there are no jails where men and women are kept in the same area as in Teixeiro.
Men and women in French jails mix only during scheduled activities.
“I think it’s a very good idea to have men and women cohabiting because that’s how life is outside,” said Ambra.