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Spanish prisoners find solace on the Camino de Santiago

Inmates from a penitentiary in Segovia are completing the last stage of their sentence on the famous pilgrimage as part of a program to help them integrate into society

The group of prisoners and educators on the pilgrimage.
The group of prisoners and educators on the pilgrimage.

A group of six inmates walks out of the doors of the Segovia prison for the first time in years – one has been inside for over a decade. They belong to a select group that has been chosen to complete the final stage of their sentence as pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James as it is known in English. With rucksacks strapped to their backs, they are ready to embark on an experience aimed at helping them reintegrate into society once they are released.

Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is a popular pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, in the northwest of Spain. Yellow arrows along the path eventually lead to the tomb of the apostle Saint James the Greater, whose remains are said to have been shipped there from Jerusalem.

In 1993, UNESCO included the Way of Saint James on its list of worldwide heritage sites, and to simplify things the agency chose the French Way to Santiago de Compostela, which was and still is the most popular one. In 2015, UNESCO also listed the Routes of Northern Spain.

Marcos, Iván, Rafa, Adil, Bouthk Ourt and Leoncio are aged between 28 and 45. They have different criminal backgrounds but all have suffered from drug addiction. The group went through a rehabilitation program and together overcame the withdrawal symptoms, which is the hardest stage of the process. The next challenge is to reintegrate into society. They trust that society will give them another chance but know the process won’t be easy. 

Walking with them are two prison educators and a volunteer from the Father Garralda Open Horizons Foundation, an NGO that has worked for the past 30 years on social-integration programs for prisoners. Jesús Hernández, the head of the group, is a veteran expert on drug addiction and reintegration programs. He was one of the first members of the prison’s treatment board.

“This experience is unique, it is a form of personal growth and a way to train for the new life that awaits them. It is the best therapy there is,” says Hernández, who has taken part in other pilgrimages.

“On this occasion we have faced a tougher experience, like life itself,” he explains. Wind and rain have followed the group almost all of the way. “But they were mentally prepared, trained to overcome it and there were no dropouts or attempts to leave. Quite the opposite,” says Hernández, who is pleased that the group is about to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

This experience is unique, it is a form of personal growth and a way to train for the new life that awaits them

Jesús Hernández, the head of the group

A lot of physical and mental preparation is needed ahead of the pilgrimage, including months or even years of therapy with specialized staff. The educators complete a profile of the inmates and select the group for the pilgrimage based on their progress over the years. “You have to stop problems with combative prisoners,” says Hernández. “But the balance is very positive, there is an empathetic relationship, they trust us, they respect us and they know that we are there to hold their hands.”

Making experiences like this happen involves a lot of bureaucracy. “It is crucial for there to be people who believe that reintegration is possible, such as José Luis Castro, the judge who oversees the execution of sentences at Spain’s High Court,” explains Hernández. The current pilgrimage was also made possible with the help of Claudia de Santos, the municipal chief of Historical Heritage and Tourism, Florencio Madruga, a judge from Valladolid, and the Red Cross, which provided logistical support.

“We need to be aware that drug addiction is also one of the most pressing problems facing the prison population,” says Hernández. “Although heroin and AIDS cause less harm now, there are new addictions, such as designer drugs that affect mental health more than physical health, and cause great damage.”

Once the rehabilitation program is completed, the educators evaluate whether the prisoners are ready to move from “confinement to freedom” in the best possible conditions. “Almost everyone is afraid to find themselves outside in society without any opportunities,” explains Hernández. “Society needs to know that it is part of the therapy, that these inmates have paid for their mistakes and are fighting to move forward. There is a lot of stigma against former prisoners and it is a big challenge for society. We have to give them a human response.”

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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