photo by Javier Díaz for Correo de Andalucía: Genaro Quintanilla, Miguel Rodríguez and David Lara during one of the first broadcastings of Onda Cerebral in 2008

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Within Sevilla 1, one of the two prisons of the city, lies a penitentiary psychiatric hospital housing 180 mentally ill inmates. This is the story of the patients’ struggle with disease in daily life and the staff members who try to help them along the way. Onda Cerebral, or Brain Wave radio station, provides a place for inmates to express themselves.

“They say that every day is a second chance, if you want it, yeah? If someone wants a second chance, do they deserve it? Does everyone get a second chance?”

This is one of the many questions posed by the inmates who run the morning program of Onda Cerebral, or Brain Wave, the radio station broadcast out of the psychiatric hospital of Sevilla 1, a prison in Seville. The radio’s morning program—which consists of debates, poetry readings, rock shows and interviews, among other things—is being broadcast in real time to the rest of the penitentiary hospital. Two other American students and I are being interviewed and using our best, imperfect Spanish as we try to satisfy the inmates’ curiosity about our foreign-seeming lives. Finally, we’re down to the last 10 minutes of the hour-long show.

Julián Vicente, an enthusiastic psychologist and educator who has worked at the prison for 20 years, grabs a microphone and addresses our listeners: “If anyone listening to the program would like to come down and participate or ask one of our American visitors a question, now’s your chance!”

A few minutes later, a dark-haired man in his early thirties named Paco González comes bounding into the room, wide-eyed and short of breath. “I have a question for the psychologist, Claire.” That’s me; mentioning my psychology major on air seems to have effectively made me a psychologist. He takes a seat right next to me, and moves in just inches from my face as he hastily asks his question about segundas oportunidades—second chances. Paco, a native of Los Boliches, a small town in the province of Málaga, and a former waiter and tourist guide in England, has already lived at the hospital for a year and a half. Next week he’ll leave in order to continue treatment in an open psychiatric community in Torremolinos, closer to his hometown.

Paco used to live alone until his paranoid schizophrenia led to him threatening neighbors and strangers. A judge decided that he should be treated at the penitentiary hospital in Seville. Curiously, he has a speech disorder that affects his Spanish but not his English, which he speaks fluently and smoothly. As I contemplate his question it becomes clear that there is no more pressing matter right now, not only for Paco but also for his fellow 180 patients, than that I provide an answer to his question.

Onda Cerebral began at the prison four years ago and functions with very little funding; it operates as a “pirate” station with a broadcasting range of just 3 kilometers outside of the prison. As Julián explains, although the nature of the radio project is to facilitate the communication of the patients with the outside world, there also remains the priority of protecting past victims from hearing the voices of their offenders.

Like most prisons, Sevilla 1, or Sevilla Uno, is located on the outskirts of the city and actually falls within the boundaries of another municipality, Mairena del Alcor. To get there, one must drive almost 15 kilometers past abandoned buildings, tiny shacks, donkeys grazing in weed-filled fields, broken-down cars and a Heineken factory. Given the prison’s isolated location and the radio program’s small broadcasting range, Onda Cerebral doesn’t reach many ears except those of the prisoners themselves.

However, every Monday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., three to four of the regular collaborators participate in a program on Radiópolis (98.4 FM), a local radio station that broadcasts to all of Seville. There, the inmates get their chance to be heard, freely discussing different topics and conducting interviews. To protect their identities, the inmates do not provide their last names.

Though the hospital is located within the enclosed grounds of Sevilla 1, it feels more like a rehabilitation center or a halfway house than a prison. There are no handcuffs, no locked cells and no guns. As in the rest of the Spanish penitentiary system, the patients do not wear uniforms and can wander the grounds of the hospital quite freely.

Those grounds include four outdoor patios, classrooms for workshops and prison programs, an inmate-tended garden of fruits, vegetables and flowers, outdoor basketball courts, a small workout room, a music room that includes the radio station’s studio and doghouses for the hospital’s pets—two lazy Labrador Retrievers.

The hospital is intended for criminals who did not understand the nature of their crimes at the time they were committed and who cannot live within the general prison population due to their psychological conditions.

Of its 180 patients, about 20 percent are incarcerated for violent crimes like rape and murder. According to Julián, the majority of crimes committed by the inmates are related to drug and alcohol abuse, as mentally ill populations are at much greater risk for substance addiction. Increasingly, crimes of domestic violence are an issue. Though the patients have many opportunities for visitation with family members, those that were caught in a domestic violence struggle cannot visit with their victims. The dynamic is too toxic for a rehabilitative environment.

The hospital offers music therapy, among other programs, which we as a group witness as two patients perform for us. The second performer, a shorter man in his late thirties named Antonio, perseveres through a long love ballad despite losing his place halfway through. Paco Herrera, the staff member leading the workshop, moves closer to Antonio and gestures with his hand like a metronome to get him back on track. As Antonio stares at a screen displaying lyrics and sings out his mournful song, Paco whispers to us, “borderline,” indicating the patient’s particular brand of personality disorder.

Paco cuts the song short and Antonio puts down his microphone heavily and drags his feet off to a corner of the room. Julián approaches him, arms wide for a hug, which Antonio resists fiercely. Laughing, Julián keeps trying, but Antonio’s resistance is strong and Julián good-naturedly lets him go.

The patients of the hospital are placed on a spectrum of severity of mental illness. Some men, like the five that conducted our radio interview, appear quite functional. Some patients suffer only from alcoholism or drug addiction and don’t display much pathology when sober.

A group called Agentes de Salud, or Agents of Health, is comprised of functional patients whose job it is to welcome new inmates and show them the ropes. They wear customized sweatshirts indicating their roles in the hospital and hand out brochures to new patients that detail information including the daily schedule, rules for laundry, a list of staff members and tips like, “Comply with the medication and reject other drugs.”

There are other patients who are clearly on the more severe end of the mental illness spectrum. In every outdoor patio, there are a few inmates sitting immobile along the walls in the sun, staring into space, into nothingness. But many patients are interested in talking to us, and one in particular, a Bulgarian man named Deyam, gladly welcomes the chance for conversation. “I only speak English, seven years in Spain and I only speak English,” he tells us, shrugging like, “Can you believe it?”

Deyam ended up in the hospital for a mild offense—fighting with police officers attempting to arrest him for causing a public disturbance.

“You are all American?” he asks us in a Bulgarian accent. When we nod yes, a smile lights up across his face and he exclaims, “Fuckin’ hell!” with a British twang. He stays with our group for most of the visit, asking us to take him back to America in our suitcases and breaking out into Katy Perry’s “California Girls” when he discovers I am from San Francisco.

We ask Deyam which prison programs he participates in. He stares at us for a long time, smiling and shaking slightly with tremors. “I do nothing,” he says with a grin and a slightly raised voice. “It’s boring! Whatever I do here is boring so I sit quiet.” A female staff member walks over and intervenes, gently laughing with Deyam while also telling him “tranquilo,” to calm down. “Tranquilo, tranquilo,” he repeats in his Bulgarian accent as he looks down at the ground, still smiling and shaking.

Our group draws a lot of interest, and many men approach us, asking us where we’re from and why we’re here. When I tell another group of inmates in the cafeteria what my hometown is, they all grin at each other and start a chorus of: “If you’re going to San Francisco/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” They cordially tell a fellow student and I how beautiful we are as we pass through each room. As we continue our visit and tour, music from the radio program drifts out of open windows and doors, alternating from classical Spanish guitar, to more modern hits like REM’s “Losing My Religion,” to heavy metal. Julián’s affable presence elicits big smiles from every room we enter.

“We are not here to condemn,” he murmurs in a moment of seriousness. “We have already condemned them by putting them here. Further punishment is not the point.”

“Does everyone get a second chance?” I am still pondering this question later in the radio studio, trying to find a satisfactory answer for Paco as I stumble over my Spanish. In the end I go with my gut reaction, my first thought, my true belief: “Por supuesto.” Of course. Everyone in the room nods and seems to agree that second chances are always possible, with the caveat that the person getting the chance must want it organically, from within. Real inner change can’t be forced.

With a 5 percent recidivism rate, compared to the general prison population’s 70 percent rate in Spain, it seems that many patients are in fact taking advantage of the second opportunity given to them when they leave. The best sign of success the staff can hope for is to never see the men they’ve treated again.

We end the program with a song, “Resistiré,” or “I Will Resist.” We sing the anthem on air a capella, belting out lines like “Though the winds of life blow hard/ I am the reed that bends.” As the song finishes I look around the room of inmates, students and staff, looking at each other with both smiles and scowls as they shout, “¡Resistiré, resistiré!”

“Medication isn’t everything”

Inmates at Sevilla 1 Penitentiary Psychiatric Hospital (Hospital Psiquiátrico Penitenciario) have a variety of mental illnesses, the most common being schizophrenia and a range of personality disorders. These illnesses impair both judgment and perception of reality, posing lifelong battles for those who suffer from their effects.

Many patients at the hospital take daily medication as part of their treatment plan. However, while psychopharmacology is one important aspect of treatment, according to the staff psychologist Julián Vicente, “Medication isn’t everything.” Rather, each facet of treatment addresses a different part of an inmate’s life, from family dynamics, to work skills, to education and even basic hygiene. Every element of treatment is integrated into one rehabilitation model, catered to each individual based on his own levels of severity and motivation.

There are numerous programs offered in the hospital, and it’s up to patients to take advantage of the opportunities provided. We learn about a basic study hall, a computer skills class, a cognitive functioning workshop led by a staff psychologist, woodworking and construction, gardening, a soccer team, a very popular theater troupe, and of course, the radio station.

One of the penitentiary hospital’s most popular and most therapeutic programs is a ceramics class. On the wall of one patio there is a massive mosaic of Picasso’s classic “Guernica,” a painting depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It took a class of patients eight years to complete and the result is stunning—despite being made of tiles and not canvas, it looks almost exactly like the original.

The art room where the class takes place, referred to facetiously by one of the center workers as the “factory of dreams,” is filled with shelves upon shelves of handmade ceramic and papier maché pieces. These include hooded Holy Week figures, tiny flamenco dancers in colorful dresses, piggy banks “for the recession,” delicate bouquets of flowers and a small yet detailed Daffy Duck. None of the items are sold but rather are sent to family and friends, or kept as reminders to inmates of their newly acquired skills; a self-esteem boost for many.


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