On prison isolation
Article 159: Prisoners are not allowed, on any pretext, to see each other or to communicate among themselves by speaking, writing or gestures. Outside his cell, each prisoner will wear a hood over his face, which may only be removed on the walking grounds, at the chapel’s amphitheatres, or in other places where no other prisoner is present.

(Provisory regulation of the Lisbon Penitentiary, 20 November 1884, Diário do Governo nº 273, 29 November 1884, p. 498)

The above clause formulated the prison rule whose final moments are documented on these photos.
It brings us back to a time in which imprisonment was taking its first, tottering steps as a useful means of punishing and recuperating law-breakers. Seen in this light and as part of a regulation with nearly three hundred articles, this precept was a simple part of a whole in which the rights and guarantees of penal subjects began to gain some importance, mitigated though it was.
In order to situate ourselves, let us go back a little. Even though it is rather difficult to determine the precise time and the general theory explaining the appearance of prisons and the various kinds of punishment1, we may consider 1800s’ Europe as the place and conjuncture in which economic and social change brought about the notion that freedom was a possession as essential to man as life itself, and that to deprive him of freedom was in itself a severe punishment.
The consolidation of this penal model as a widespread form of punishment for criminals made it necessary to create socio-architectural models2 for prisons. Prisons evolved quickly from spaces in which law-breakers were confined, while waiting for their (usually corporal) punishment, to facilities for the punishment and regeneration of inmates.
The vulgarisation of freedom-depriving penalties was attended by a wide debate on their goals. This kind of debate, which went beyond the limits of a mere theoretical dispute, was most important for the design of prisons and for the definition of incarceration regimes. Based on the premise that the right to punish was an obligation of society and the State, applicable to any social players who broke the rules, the polemics on the goal of penalties turned around three main positions, to which corresponded different architectonic options and incarceration regimes.
The arguments employed on the debate differed more on tactical than on strategic terms. The theory of general prevention said that harsh penalties in harsh conditions would be more adequate to the regeneration of law infringers and to the intimidation of would-be criminals. The retributive theory defended that penalties should fit the crime. Finally, at the end of the 19th century, the theory of special prevention suggested the use of freedom-depriving penalties as an instrument for the regeneration of delinquents.
The discussions about the configuration of prison buildings and their regimes became entangled with the above theoretical models. Of the different configurations suggested, three would go down in history.
The Philadelphia or Pennsylvanian system combined the panopticon with a radial disposition. One-man cells, disposed in a circle, would allow, at the same time, the permanent isolation of the prisoners and their constant surveillance from a single central point. The corrected Philadelphia model, while leaving the design and disposition of the buildings unchanged, suggested that the prison regime should evolve from continuous cellular isolation to daytime conditioned contacts, namely by the imposition of silence among recluses. A conceptual rupture came with the Auburnian model, which prescribed the construction of rectangular blocks, where the cells lined a central corridor, from which the prisoners were watched. The prison regime of the time was an evolutive one, combining night-time isolation with daytime group activities.
These prison theories and practices, implemented in Europe and North America, were followed and widely discussed in Portugal, but not adopted. This lack of action was largely due to governmental instability, that did not allow the pursuit of policies in the different domains of national life, namely in prisons. Thus it was that, in spite of the liberal revolution, only in 1857 a new penal was promulgated to replace book V of the Philippine Ordainments, whose normative severity reflected the intolerant nature of any occupant.
This code was a turning point in the penal frame, replacing physical punishments, to the exception of the death penalty, by the deprivation of freedom, which began to be regularly applied. Its formulation stressed the notion that prison should be a means for the recuperation of convicts; that was even considered to be its first and noblest aim. However, in spite of all the importance given to the deprivation of freedom, nothing was specified about its putting into practice.
Prisons having been, until then, spaces for temporary confinement, in which prisoners waited for their sentences to be applied directly to their bodies, any moderately impregnable building could fulfil that function. When prisons became punishment themselves, the final destination for convicts, new spaces had to be quickly found for them. Castles and palaces, among other buildings, were put to that use, provided they were secure and harsh enough.
The conjugation of makeshift facilities and absence of regulations concerning the way freedom-depriving sentences were to be carried out quickly turned these prisons into sinister places, where only unhealthiness and hardship could be said to have any rehabilitating and dissuasive effects. To regulate this new reality became thus a real imposition. However, things did get any faster and, in 1861, a penal code project that prescribed a continuous cellular regime, work in the cells and the contact of prisoners with people that would help their moral recovery was turned down, and the same happened to its reformulation, three years later.
In spite of their lack of immediate success, these legal sketches would eventually lead to the Penal and prison reform of July 1st, 1867. It abolished the death penalty and forced labour, while stating that all kinds of prison sentences were to be carried out in a cellular regime, in which the prisoners would be kept separated from each other day and night, with no kind of communication taking place. Work, instruction and moral and religious education were presented as the mainstays of a penitentiary action that would recuperate convicts. To attain these objectives, three general penitentiaries were to be built, following the Philadelphia model (already at the time being subject to criticism), and several district gaols.
It was within the above legal context that, in December 12th, 1872, the Provisory regulation of civilian gaols in the kingdom’s continental possessions and islands was promulgated. It subordinated prisons to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Justice, regulated mandatory work and gave medical assistance to prisons. However, the prison conditions of the time were not up to the new legislation.
As part of the implementation of the 1867 reform, the construction of the Lisbon Penitentiary began in 1873. On November 20th 1884, its daily life was minutely regulated, and it received the first inmates on September 2nd 1885. On that date, the Diário do Governo published the Provisory regulation of the Lisbon Penitentiary, in which the prison’s personnel, administration and timetables were set down, as well as the exhaustive regulation of daily life in that prison, made up of single-man cells.
The art of punishing was, from now on, confined to the techniques of disciplinary representation. Violence was no longer exerted on the bodies of the prisoners, who should be treated by the guards with civility and kindness … but not familiarity (article 129), but rather applied to the transformation of souls. Discipline distributed the individuals across the space, dividing it into as many parts as there were bodies to isolate. In this lonely temple, the prisoner had time to confront solitude, himself, his faults and, most of all, the severity of his punishment.
But to physically separate was not enough: it was necessary to conceive a form of isolation in which the subject was seen but could not see, being an object of information and never a subject of communication. It was here that the hoods came in. Created to prevent acquaintance among prisoners, they preserved their identity at the cost of the recluses’ imposed anonymity and daily individual annulment.
An instrument to change those who had been deprived of their freedom, the hood was a kind of light coarse linen bag with holes for the mouth and eyes, which the prisoners were forced to wear, under threat of punishment, every time they came out of their cells3. To live everyday life with a concealed face was an obligation for the prisoner, who could only remove his hood in the cell where he ate, slept and worked,
at mass and during classes, where prisoners were confined in individual booths, out of which they could only see what was directly ahead of them, and during the mandatory open air walk, which was taken by one man at a time. Whenever a prisoner reached one of these destinations, a bell rang to make him remove the hood, or to make him put it back when it was time to return to the cell.
This disciplinary situation remained unchanged until January 30th, 1913, when a diploma changing prison regime was promulgated, ushering in Auburn’s system. In the meantime, the 1872 provisory regulation became definitive in 1901, and 1910 saw the country change from a monarchy to a republic, which extended the use of hoods to its political prisoners.
In spite of the contradictions or because of them, it was the voice of the republican leader Afonso Costa that, after warning the prisoners, all lined up in the chapel’s booths, of the rigorous punishment for any prevaricators4, told them to, at the blow of a whistle, uncover their faces. Apparently, the prisoners’ reactions were almost as disparate as the reactions from the press concerning the benignity of the act.

A few, due to political beliefs, kept the hood on, a tiny number of them seemed ashamed of walking around barefaced5, but most of them received the announcement with a tempest of words that echoed lugubriously across the arches … and then, with enormous and moving joy, they tore out the hoods and returned to their cells6, where less penitent but almost as harsh times awaited them.

J.J. Semedo Moreira
(translation: José Gabriel Flores)
  1. MOREIRA, Adriano, O Problema Prisional do Ultramar, Coimbra Editora, Coimbra, 1954, p. 5.
  2. BARREIROS, José António, «As Instituições Criminais em Portugal no Século XIX: Subsídios para a sua história», in Análise Social, vol. XVI, Lisboa, 1980, p. 587.
  3. Cadeia Nacional de Lisboa seu significado no problema penal português, sua história e descrição, Oficinas Gráficas da Cadeia Nacional, Lisboa, 1917, p. 32.
  4. República de 9/2/1913.
  5. O Século de 7/2/1913.
  6. Diário de Notícias de 7/2/913.