Aranjuez Prison: A Family Jail

By: Keith



This is somewhat old news, but Aranjuez prison in Spain is designed for family living.  At first I thought, well this is an interesting oddity.  But, after some consideration, I think it’s more than just an oddity (although it is that, too).  This brings up all sorts of questions regarding incarcerated parents and the fates of their children.  In a broader context it even causes us to ask ourselves how we view prison.  Is it rehabilitation or is it punishment?  Maybe both.  And, the impact broken families have on the crime rate is controversial but well documented.  Poverty combined with fatherless children combined with poor education equals crime.  That’s a generalization, of course, because loads of people have broken that cycle.  But, who can deny, generally, that those three factors put kids at a severe disadvantage in life?  It is clearly true.  What about this prison?  Is it good policy for the government to try to stem future crime by essentially cutting current criminals some slack and allowing them quality family time?  I say it’s a noble effort, but it overlooks one thing – the rights of the kids.


Imprisoned Kids:


prison-mediumThe idea is that kids live with their imprisoned parents until age 3 at which point they have to leave the prison and live with relatives. The prison believes that children need to bond with their mothers and fathers despite them being in prison.  The cells are posh by cell standards.  They are full rooms with all the amenities of home.  They apparently bear little resemblance to an actual prison.  But plucking a quote from a USA Today story on the prison, we begin to see the flaw. 

“At dawn a guard wakes the family up for roll call. At 9 p.m., they are locked up again. Victor Manuel, who has spent the day playing with the other children of inmates, sometimes stands outside the cell crying because he does not want to go back behind the bars.”


To me this is reason enough to cease the experiment.  Everybody deserves a chance for rehabilitation and redemption, but when it comes at the expense of a child’s mental health then it is no longer rehabilitation; it becomes transference of punishment.


Parenting Skills:


JAIL BARS(5)Another reason cited for locking kids up with their delinquent parents is to use the parents’ time behind bars to teach good parenting skills.  That’s an excellent idea, but still wrong.  Clearly they were not stellar parents to begin with.  When I got CPR certified and First Aid certified they didn’t let me practice on a real human being until they were sure I had it right.  Isn’t this the same sort of thing?  These parents are being locked up because they make poor decisions.  Shouldn’t they practice on a melon or something first?  It seems that, in the effort to rehabilitate, the children are being overlooked even though the children are a primary component in the mission statement of this prison.  It is antithetical to children’s mental health to subject them to additional poor decision making. In my mind the parents should be rehabilitated then reunited with their kids.


What About the Other Prisoners?


There are other prisoners in this jail besides families.  They live in a more traditional jail setting with fewer freedoms.  It seems that the prisoners with families are being given preferential treatment.  It’s as if to have a family means you get off with a lighter sentence, and that doesn’t seem fair.  If I commit a crime shouldn’t I pay the price just like someone who doesn’t have kids?  It’s the crime that I was sentenced for, not the fact that I have kids.


1236706095_0Crime needs to be punished.  But, the criminal is a person too who, unless we want to see a spiraling cycle of familiar delinquency, needs reform.  This prison in Spain is running a social experiment on crime.  They want to know if having bonding time with kids will reform the parents and possibly stop future generations from engaging in the same bad behavior.  I sincerely think what they have undertaken is with all good intentions. I too believe in rehabilitating prisoners.  But I also believe in punishment. The system should not merely be designed to make better people out of criminals. I don’t have all the facts on this prison and I don’t know how many resources it pulls from other state business.  I imagine they have to have extra psychologists on hand and allocate more resources for child care.  Maybe this prison is actually a good idea.  Maybe the state has thought of everything and I’m off base with my concerns. If that is the case then I’m glad. My initial reaction though is concern for the well being of the kids more than concern for the prisoner.

12 Responses to “Aranjuez Prison: A Family Jail”
  1. Laura Sneden November 10, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

    Your new logo is really cool!

  2. Danny Grubb November 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm #

    What a strange story. I wonder if criminals who can feel the heat coming down on them try to get their wives pregnant before they’re caught. I would never allow my kids to be locked up, even if it is to be with me. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that criminals are selfish.
    .-= Danny Grubb´s last blog ..How to Take Great Snow Pictures of Your Children =-.

  3. J. Cruikshank November 10, 2009 at 7:55 pm #

    Hm, interesting concept. I do think that it is a critical bonding age for the parents as well as the kids but your points on both sides of this issue are valid. Doesn’t this require both parents being in the slammer?

    • Keith November 11, 2009 at 7:08 am #

      You’re right, early childhood is indeed a critical bonding time. And I believe that, yes, both parents need to be in the slammer. But, I’m not sure about that. I read a few articles about it suggesting that. Still not completely sure how it works.

  4. Stephanie November 10, 2009 at 8:05 pm #

    Interesting. I actually hadn’t heard about this.

    The whole thing really breaks my heart and I’m not sure what the best scenario is. What I DO know is that the primary concern should be for the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of the children involved. At first reflection, it certainly seems that locking them up with a clearly unstable caregiver is not the best option…
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog least a hundred a week =-.

    • Keith November 11, 2009 at 7:10 am #

      Stephanie, that was my reaction too. While I want to see these parents rehabilitated, I can’t say the best way to do that is by subjecting the kids to the possible pain of failed parenting.

  5. Jody November 11, 2009 at 7:58 am #

    What an interesting topic. I am of two minds here. I agree that family bonding is critical for both the child and the parent in question, but I am not certain a return to family incarceration is the best model.

    I was an elementary school teacher for nearly 10 years before my current incarnation as a homeschooling mama. The neighborhood I taught in was full of fatherless first grade children. The reason: there was a major round up of gang members and drug dealers the year these children were born. Dozens of men were all sentenced to 5-10 years in prison for criminal activity. Not all of them were violent offenders, (yet) but many of them were. The year I was their teacher, the first group of these fathers were let out of jail. Many of them worked really hard to establish relationships with their young children, but it was hard. The children had all known their fathers in some capacity, but none had really bonded to them. It was very sad. These dads were so full of hope that their kids would love them, that they would be a loving family once they got out. They really wanted to do right by their children. Many of them were very young when they went to jail, and they came out more mature, and wanting to be good parents. I wish there had been a way for these fathers to spend more time with the kids sooner. It would have smoothed their transition back into a family setting, and perhaps kept some of them from falling back into the gang oriented lifestyle they had left behind.

    I am also not convinced that this model is entirely harmful to the children. In a normal family setting we agree that very young children are best served by being with their parents. They do not have the need to range far from their family unit, and they tend to do well with routines. I see why the children have to leave past the age of three. When they are no longer in that baby/toddler stage it would be very hard to meet their need for activity and exploration in a prison setting, but prior to that, I see little difference between the child crying about being put to bed in their own room, versus having to back into the family’s cell. I agree that the parents were incarcerated because of poor decision making, but frankly, I think the kids are better off this way than in CPS custody. At least the parents are being monitored at all times, and we know they are receiving training in parenting skills.

    On the other hand, I am not sure a return to family incarceration is ideal either. I say “return to” because this was a common practice in the 19th century. Whole families were incarcerated in debtors prisons in Britain. The debtor would have to stay inside the prison, until their debt had been paid off, but other members of the family were allowed to come and go freely during the day. Especially if they were able to go to work and pay down the debt. Granted, family life was very different then, but it kept the wife and children off the street, and it preserved the family unit. Charles Dickens wrote about this experience in his novel, “Little Dorrit”. It was certainly not an ideal way to raise children, but it was better than the work house. Before we judge this model to harshly we have to ask ourselves, what institutions does Spain have in place to help the wives and children of these prisoners while the men are jailed? What is the impact on the rest of the family if they are separated? What happens to the long term health of the family unit if the children are separated and the incarcerated parents receive counseling in prison, but have no actual contact with the children?

    My last comment is regarding punishment and rehabilitation. I agree that the criminals need to be punished as well as rehabilitated. I don’t see this family jail model as being a lesser sentence. The point behind prison is to deprive the prisoner of their personal freedom. That goal is still being accomplished. I don’t think the crib in the cell really adds much in the way of comfort to the man who is imprisoned. If the wives and children are free to come and go, but the men are still locked down, then I don’t see much of a difference. It isn’t as if the other prisoners are doing hard labor on the other side of the prison complex while these men are playing daddy. I would also argue that the impending separation at the age of 3 is also a pretty harsh punishment for a well bonded and loving parent to endure. I think my husband would rather lose a limb than be separated from his children like that.

    Thanks for the thought provoking entry today. :)

    • Keith November 11, 2009 at 6:47 pm #

      Wow, Jody! What a well thought out comment. Thank you for putting in this much effort. You bring up some interesting points. I hadn’t considered debtors prison; I actually didn’t know they were family prisons too. I think I still disagree with you about the sentences being lighter for families. I know this might not be a fair comparison but some prisons here in the US are experimenting with a program whereby well behaved prisoners get help train service dogs. They say the companionship of the dogs goes a long way toward rehabilitating and it’s considered by the prisoners to be a special treat. Now, kids aren’t dogs, but doesn’t having them around help prisoners cope better with prison? I think that in itself makes for a lighter sentence.

      Thanks so much for this awesome comment. You really tackled all the angles. :-)

  6. Elaina November 11, 2009 at 2:38 pm #

    Early brain development that is essential to impulse control and emotional regulation occurs within the first year and a half of life. Research shows that without this, behavioral problems can be serious and be passed on from one generation to the next. In addition, it is also shown that raising children does a lot to repair damaged parents. With training and supervision, improved parenting skills can go a very long way to better social adjustment and future success in life. Parenting in prison may seem like a radical idea, but it’s not. It is based on research and may be the beginning of generations of better behavioral and social functioning.

    Elaina Jannell, Ph.D.
    AFSMCE Local 2620

    • Keith November 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm #

      I always wonder why people sign with Ph.D attached to their names. It must mean you’re right.

  7. el mas golfo November 25, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    hola tengo un colega hay dentro y me a dicho que se esta de lujo y tal solo quiero comentar que hace mas falta fondos para las instituciones penintenciarias o mas sobenciones y demas bueno solo quiero decir que paciencia para lo reclusos que pronto llegara y demas pronto estareis fuera siendo libres como el viento y demas buenas tardes a todos un saludo

  8. Christa March 16, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    I have been researching prisons for a paper and came across this one. Personally, I find the experiment very inspiring. I am from Buffalo, NY which is known for its high crime rates. I was find it disappointing that people feel the experiment gives some inmates an advantage over others. Although there are perks to the experiment, I think that this active rehabilitation would be much more effective than separating the child and parent. Obviously parenting is something that must be learned actively, rather than reading parenting books or practicing on a melon (as was stated above) cannot recreate the challenges and rewards that parenting offers. Furthermore, as for the children being traumatized. I find this argument weak and invalid. These children are not deprived of any liberty that a “free” child would experience. The trauma that a child experiences from being separated from a friend is a normal experience that every child has gone through. These “traumatic” experiences are vital for children to experience in order to cope with problems that they will face as adults.

    Basically I agree with Jody.

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