"Module 7, headcount". It's five minutes before eight o'clock in the morning. The internal speaker system sounds off. It's a routine tone of voice accompanied by the mechanical clank of doors opening just enough to allow a prison worker, punctual, to do the headcount. Oriol Junqueras is in Cell 1. Next to him in Cell 2 is Joaquim Forn. The third cell is for Raül Romeva.
At this hour, Junqueras should be about to leave home to take his two children —Lluc and Joana— to school. A short walk with the two little ones before his government car takes him to Barcelona city. Forn, about to leave for the ministry’s HQ, should be checking one last time to make sure the bedsheets are crease-free; unusually neat and disciplined, it's an unwavering habit. Romeva, like Junqueras, should be taking his son Noah to school. But none of them is at home. The first two have spent 7 months and 5 days in pre-trial custody in the Madrid VII Penitentiary Center, in the middle of nowhere, 70 kilometers from Madrid. Romeva, after spending 32 days there, re-entered Estremera on March 23rd. They are not the only ones in prison: also being held are Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Carme Forcadell, and Dolors Bassa.
Sixteen hours locked away
ARA has gained access to images of the Catalan political prisoners in Estremera. The video —with a date that isn't real— shows the day-to-day life of the three politicians in pre-trial custody. Three husbands, three fathers, who are awaiting justice, and who have to spend 16 hours a day locked away in an eleven square meter cell. There is a lot of time to think —even more so now that they are alone. Up to a month ago, Junqueras and Forn shared a cell, a small room with a metal sink, a shower, and a rudimentary toilet on the right. The cell has a small bunk bed and a pair of desks with six shelves to hold personal items. There is also a TV to kill time and keep themselves up-to-date (via Spanish channels) on what is happening outside the prison walls. And many books and letters. Dozens of letters to communicate with families and friends, with other party members and rivals, and also with anonymous people showing their support and solidarity.
At 10 a.m., after a quick breakfast, they have three hours for activities or to spend in the common rooms. Each inmate can do four activities per week, of one hour each. Chess, languages, crafts, football, reading ... A committee is in charge of collecting the inmates' proposals, which are not always accepted. It also deals with solving the many small problems that come up on a daily basis, such as the running of Quinto [a bingo-like game], who will manage the reading, or changes that happen in the summer: as in their children's schools, the activities end during the last week in June. Until September.
In the video, Junqueras can be seen giving a talk on ancient history to some inmates. He has earned the respect of many who have shown interest in learning and making the most of their stay in a penintentiary with over 1,200 cells, between imposing walls that isolate them from the outside world. "Ancient Greece saw the birth of the philosophy that deals with the physical world and natural things, and also the philosophy dedicated to human things", explains Junqueras. Romeva is among the audience, listening to him, seated next to a chessboard and a book, two great allies for both him and for his party colleague. "The sophists were those who dealt with human knowledge. Protagoras, Gorgias and, from there, Socrates, then Plato, followed by Aristotle", continues the Catalan vice-president. While the two share the class on ancient history, with constant questions from some of the other inmates, Forn is in a small library —a room of little more than 20 square meters with a blackboard and a few hundred books— where he writes his memoirs. He has being doing this since the first day, so that no detail is forgotten. His young daughter Beta suggested it. They were both going to do it, but only he has continued with a routine that he knows will help him to overcome the oppressiveness of Estremera's walls. That is where he keeps his reflections. The fear of the early weeks, the hope of those days when good news comes from Germany or from Parliament. A memoir that not even his wife Laura has been able to read yet. The pages leaving Estremera carry too much emotional weight to face, for the moment.
It is Forn's brother-in-law, José, who tries to tell the story from outside, in a WhatsApp group where he posts the reflections of his closest circle and the daily events that happen in a house that has been missing Joaquim for the past seven months. They don't want to forget, either.
After a rushed lunch, little more than 20 minutes to eat quickly, they are again locked up in their cells until mid-afternoon, when they can go out into the common areas or the yard for a few hours. Junqueras and Forn play tennis, as opponents, with another pair of inmates. Sometimes they even try table tennis with some other inmate. There is also time for phone calls. They have 50 minutes per week, a maximum of 10 calls to authorized phone numbers, which must pass the rigorous filter of the prison authorities. Forn always makes his calls at 6 p.m. Romeva does so in the morning, though some days he waits until the afternoon so he can talk to his two children. Junqueras makes a missed call first to ensure that the person he's calling will pick up: if it goes to voice mail, the time is deducted from the total.
Time to think
At 7:30 p.m., after a quick dinner, everything comes to an end. They are locked up in their cells until the following morning. Thirteen straight hours. From Monday to Sunday, everyday is the same. And it has now been more than 210 days for Forn and Junqueras. Time spent in the cell is time for reading. For answering letters, including those for Anna, the oldest daughter of the former Interior Minister. She lives in England. A few days ago she met her partner's parents. They travelled to Switzerland. "What will you tell them about your father?", they asked her from Barcelona before she went to be introduced to her future in-laws. It's not easy to say that your father is in prison. "That he's a political prisoner", she says with pride. Because they can never take away your dignity. The family members know this. So do the prisoners themselves. "You're lucky, because you can sleep with a clean conscience", a prisoner has told them more than once, repentant for what he did that landed him in Estremera and well-aware that the three Catalan leaders are there for political reasons.
Since he returned to the Madrid prison, Romeva has spent many hours doing meditation and yoga. It is a way to fight the 16 hours of isolation in his cell, many hours of reflection to "re-situate himself personally", as those who know him best explain. Either that or burying himself in dozens of books that he consumes thanks to the small table light that keeps him company in the darkness.
No allowances made
As with all other inmates, the three Catalan politicians must also do the jobs assigned to them. Like cleaning, as shown in the video to which this newspaper has had access. Every Tuesday and Saturday, for example, with two cloths together so as to clean better, it's time to clean and tidy the hallways of the assembly room, or tidy up the library so that no book is left out on the tables, a task that Junqueras has taken on.
They also have to put up with the small humiliations that some of the prison workers try to inflict on them from time to time. Disdainful attitudes that, over time, the prisoners have learned how to protect themselves from. Those who know them have seen how in recent months the Catalan politicians who are being held in Estremera have grown. "They aren’t faltering", assured people who know them, before emphasizing one of the most important factors in surviving behind the walls of Estremera: preserving their dignity. "Nobody will managed to pierce through his dignity", says a trusted friend. "He's growing as a person, they haven't been able to get to him", they state before finishing: "They are not just three normal prisoners, they are three political prisoners. And in Estremera, everyone who lives with them behind those giant walls knows that.