“Nowhere in the world are prisoners as abandoned to themselves”. This is how the British Bible vendor George Borrow described life in the Jail of Madrid, located at the Santa Cruz Palace, the building hosting the Foreign Ministry nowadays.
“Jorgito el Inglés” (Little George the English) had been imprisoned in 1838 for several crimes, among them the “distribution of a book printed in Gibraltar”. The forbidden book was none other than the Bible, as he told in his most significant work, The Bible in Spain, a really entertaining story about travels published in 1843, two hundred years after the construction of the Jail of Madrid concluded.
What Borrow described on his book was well known by its forced guests. In that baroque building of the Santa Cruz suburb, a prison with capacity for more than 250 prisoners designed by Juan Gómez de Mora, life conditions were deplorable and prisoners had to pay for their own necessities and depend on charity or the corruption of civil servants to survive.
Corruption had its advantages, at least for some. In 1831, the future president of the Government Salustiano de Olózaga was arrested for participating in a liberal plot against Ferdinand VII. When his execution seemed unavoidable, he received the unexpected help of another prisoner.
He was the very popular bandit of Lavapiés Luis Candelas, who refused to accompany him in his escape, despite of the requests of the politician, because that is what he had agreed with the jailers he had bribed. Candelas was captured again in 1837 and executed at the Cebada Square, despite of the fact that he had not committed any violent crime.
In 1846, after 203 years as a prison and only three years after the publication of Borrow’s book, the government closed the Jail of Madrid. In the 170 following years, the Santa Cruz palace hosted the Court and, successively, the Overseas Ministry, the Ministry of State and, since 1950, the Foreign Ministry.