Monday, January 9, 2012


As I scanned the Spanish press for some interesting reports to follow up I spotted the headline – Spain’s oldest prisoner kept inside over Christmas. I envisaged an 80 or 90-year-old spending the festive season locked behind bars which would make a good human interest story but on reading the article I discovered there was far more to it.

To start with Miguel Montes Neiro isn’t Spain’s oldest prisoner, he is just 61. Rather he is the country’s longest serving inmate although the prison service disputes that. The reason he generated so many column inches is that Miguel Montes Neiro spent Christmas, New Year and Three Kings behind bars – even though the Spanish Government had granted him a pardon.

Miguel and his family had hoped that a recent decision by the Council of Ministers, the Cabinet, of the outgoing Spanish Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero on a pardon for Miguel would be acted on. The decision was communicated from the government to the Supreme Court to the Granada provincial court for his sentence to be lifted. However the judiciary is always sensitive to orders from the executive branch of government and an outgoing administration holds little sway hence Miguel was not released in time for Christmas.

Miguel is being held at the Albolote prison near Granada and his family through their lawyer had asked the governing board for Miguel to be released to be with them for the extended Spanish Christmas. However the application was denied and although they travelled to the Granada court with a petition of ‘habeas corpus’ hoping to bring him home they returned alone as the duty judge rejected it on technical grounds.

Miguel is said to have been “very depressed” by the decision with his lawyer adding: “it is as if he has been sentenced to another 20 years”. A family member said they felt as if all the snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains had been dropped on them.

The prison’s governing body is in no doubt as to why Miguel spent the festive season behind bars. It says to be released under the terms of the current regulations a close family member has to have died or be seriously ill or his wife is giving birth. In Miguel’s case none of these applied.

Between escapes and crimes Francisco Miguel Montes Neiro, to give him his full name, has spent more than half of his life in prison since 1966. He recently stated: “Now they say I will be in prison to 2021. I will then be 71. I will not live ten more years neither do I want to live inside.” With his escapes he has spent 1,386 days at liberty. If you discount that time he has served almost 32 of the last 35 years inside the walls of Spanish prisons. Although he has been convicted of some 20 offences none of them are blood crimes.

He looks older than his 61 years and this is due in a large part to the three hunger strikes he has undertaken in order to seek an official pardon. He has been convicted of robbery, assaults, carrying of weapons, holding false documentation and what are described as “delitos contra la salud pública” in other words drug offences.

A spokesperson for the Instituciones Penitenciarias disputes the fact he is the longest serving prisoner arguing he has spent long periods on the streets in which he returned to crime.

From Granada, of the flamenco tradition, Miguel is regarded by the prison service as a grade one prisoner because of his many escapes. There are various grades – for instance grade three prisoners normally are free during the day and just sleep in their cells at night, returning home for the weekends.

The last time Miguel was given permission to leave jail was in 2009 for two hours to attend the funeral of his mother. Albolote prison is 25 kms from Granada and each week some of his four brothers or their children visit him but they say are not always allowed to enter the jail. The prison runs a tough regime, bars block the views from the windows and there is cheap plastic for mirrors which deform the image.

In Britain Miguel might be described as a habitual criminal or an aging “Jack the lad”. He has escaped, he has committed crimes and society has demanded he pay the price. Perhaps after a life of crime in some ways it is fitting that finally having been given a government pardon the judicial and prison service has had the last say.

My only comment is that I believe Miguel deserved better than to be used as a gimmick by the outgoing socialist government. I offer no other opinion here but to beg the questions has society failed Miguel or did he receive his just desserts? As a non-violent prisoner should he have received grade two or three treatment or as a constant escapee was he number one class?

Is Miguel’s treatment rough or true justice?

(A version of the above article appeared in the Morning Star on January 10 2012)

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