Prisons in Portugal

Portuguese prisons have a changing history. At the beginning of the 19th century, several historical buildings were adapated and transformed into prisons. With the 1867 penitentiary reform, facilities were built to meet the new requirements recommended by European reformers, notably in the form of panopticon prisons. Then judicial and administrative establishments, the so called Cadaias camarcas, as well as penal colonies were built. Since the Carnation Revolution of 1974, a large number of facilities have been closed.     

Today, Portugal has 49 facilities (estabelecimentos prisionais, EP), divided into two groups, establishments presenting a high complexity and with an average complexity, without a distinction between facilities for pre-trial detainees and for sentenced inmates.

The number of prisoners has  long exceeded that of the available detention places, but the Covid-pandemic brought the occupancy level in mid-2020 down to under 100%. At the end of 2023, it stood at 98%. By European comparison, Portugal has still a high prisoner rate, which may be explained by the large number of long prison sanctions.

Sentenced detainees have no obligation to work, and the work possibilities are limited, making everyday life even more monotonous. The guards (guarda prisional) are regrouped in unions.

Table: Occupancy level and prisoner rate of some selected states

State Occupancy ratel¹ Prisoner rate²
Portugal (09.2023) 98% 121
Spain (01.2023) 74% 113
France (07.2023) 123% 109
Switzerland (01.2023) 90% 73
Germany (01.2023) 81% 71
UK: Scotland (01.2023) 97% 144
Slovakia (08.2023) 87% 185
Serbia (01.2023) 90% 162

1) Occupancy rate: represents the number of detainees in relation to the official capacity.
2) Prisoner rate: represents the number of detainees in relation to 100'000 persons of the population of a country.
Source: Prison Population List, Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR).

Two categories of establishments

A standard facility of the group classified with a high complexity is composed of several units, each comprising single cells and dormitories, a cafeteria and an office for the guards. Prisoners eat under supervision in a refectory. The daily two hours’ outdoor activities are carried out in the courtyards.

The overall infrastructure contains three to four classrooms, one of them with computers, a library, a small, simply-equipped fitness room, a prison store and a prayer room, also used for other purposes. The workspaces, when they exist, are located in an annex to the cell buildings or, especially in older prisons, in separate structures.

The medical infrastructure is housed in a unit of its own, with a waiting area, several examination rooms, a pharmacy and an infirmary, and an isolation room. Disciplinary punishments are also carried out in a separate unit, with special cells and courtyards.

In some of the prisons visited, a distinct unit with a capacity of 5% of the facility offers a lighter regime (regime aberto no interior, RAI), higher autonomy and better comfort. Their task is to prepare for imminent release.

Regular family visits (twice a week, one hour each time) take place under supervision in one or several large rooms. Intimate visits – by international comparison, rather generously granted – take place in rooms equipped with a double bed, a kitchenette, a WC and a shower.

The facilities are secured, some by armed guards in watchtowers that are permanently manned. The guards have 24-hour shifts and two days off. They have their own rest and leisure rooms, cafeterias and sleeping area.

An establishment of the group of prisons with a medium complexity consists of one or two cell buildings with a relatively small number of detention places. These are renovated buildings of the old Cadeias Comarçãs from the end of the 19th century or the 1940s. They have walking yards, visitor rooms and occasionally a training room.

EP da Guarda. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2016

Estabelecimento Prisional da Guarda

200 km SE of Porto | 182 places | prison facility since 1971

Used first as a prison-hospital, the building was transformed into a full-fledged prison facility in 1971. Besides establishments housing only women, EP Guarda is one of 5 prisons with a ‘Secção Feminina’. The prison, surrounded by a pentagonal wall, is composed of two U-shaped buildings;  the wings are two or three floors high.

Shape of cellblock EP Guarda
Shape of cellblock

"On a very cold day, the work of documenting photographically this prison was reinforced emotionally by the nature of the spaces, the everyday routine of the inmates, stereotyped but, at the same time, unique and personal."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP de Leiria. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2016

Estabelecimento Prisional de Leiria (Jovens)

Halfway between Porto and Lisbon | 347 places | opened 1956

Located in a large field of 90ha, this facility is the only one for minors and young adults in Portugal. The inmates come mainly from the suburbs of major urban centres.
Part of the buildings are inherited from an old farmhouse;  in the 1940s, a further seven prison pavilions were built.

Shape of cellblocks EP Leiria
Shape of cellblocks

"Since it was my first ever photo shoot inside a prison, I was quite nervous. The fact that the inmates were young men reinforced the emotional character of this first visit. I decided to highlight interactions among the youths and the social aspect during school time and other activities."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP de Viseu. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2016

Estabelecimento prisional de Viseu

130 km SE of Porto | 37 places | opened 1975

The prison has a U-shaped ground structure. Contrary to other institutions, hardly any land surrounds it, except for a football field. The wings are linked by a wall containing the main gate. The space between the two wings is used for administrative purposes.

Shape of cellblock/main building EP Viseu
Shape of cellblock

"The small size of this structure and the densely-populated cells became the main issue of my documentation. It was in this facility that I felt the strongest proximity to prisoners and their spaces."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP de Lisboa. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2017

Estabelecimento Prisional de Lisboa

Lisbon (Centre) | 887 places | opened 1880

The penitentiary complex is located on the edge of the city centre, on one of its seven hills. The main building, nowadays a protected historical monument, was built after the model of the Prison of Leuven in Brussels which dates back to 1860. Its structure, with the typical radial ground design, has six wings, with close to 600 cells on three floors and some in the basement. One of these wings has been modernised; in the others, individual cells were combined two-by-two to create communal, four-bed cells to increase capacity.
Another unit with 38 places is used for therapeutic treatment with a strict regime. This Unit G is in a separate building, probably of the same age as the main building. The medical department is located in a new building. Unit H is accommodated in containers; it comprises 104 places under a lighter regime (RAI).

Layout of the prison buildings inside the surrounding walls

"For detainees, this prison means hardship. For me, as a photographer, this place, with its original historic constructions, was unique. The two days spent in this facility, the largest in Portugal, were far too short for everything I would have liked to photograph."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Carregueira. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2016

Estabelecimento Prisional da Carregueira

17 km NW of Lisbon | 732 places | opened 2003/2004

The establishment lays in a rural area along the N117, on a previous military training ground. Except for two cell blocks, the buildings and the secured prison area with its large plot of land reserve could be qualified as rather good, especially the well-designed visitor facilities. The cell blocks contain, in total, 122 communal cells and 72 single cells. Communal cells – with four beds – were, in 2011, equipped with a fifth bed. The interior of the cell blocks has a complex design and needs a lot of personnel to be under full control.
The unit organised on a lighter regime (RAI) has 38 places with a comparatively relaxed, almost homely atmosphere.

Shape of cellblock/main building EP Carregueira
Shape of cellblocks (A and B) and of the unit RAI

"Carregueira is a modern prison in many ways. It was my second visit to a Portuguese facility. I was surprised, however, by the small number of detainees who work; the majority just hang around in their cells."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Santa Cruz do Bispo (feminino). Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2016

Estabelecimento Prisional de Santa Cruz do Bispo (feminino)

Next to the Porto Airport | 352 places for women only | opened 2004

Just below the landing path of the airport of Porto is the location of this modern Estabelecimento Prisional, in the immediate vicinity of the prison for men with the same name and other special facilities of the DGRSP.
The four wings serve four different purposes: one is a unit for mother and child, another a unit for pre-trial prisoners and the last two for sentenced inmates. Each has its own courtyard and refectory. The single cells are small, especially when a cot is placed in it. The communal cells have 6 beds. Quite remarkable is the nursery, with its special offer of activities for children of the detainees, who may stay in the establishment until the age of 5. There is also a large, well-equipped and well-used gym. The standards of security are similar to other facilities of the high complexity category.

Layout of the prison buildings inside the surrounding  fence

"A convincing modern architecture with a clear structure, and large inner spaces, but only small external ones."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP Izeda. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2017

Estabelecimento Prisional de Izeda

Izeda (Região Trás os Montes) | 301 places | prison facility since 1995

Izeda is a commune situated at 600 m, in a lost, barren region close to the Spanish border. In summer, it is extremely hot; in winter bitterly cold. The Salesian Don Bosco Institution built here in 1960s a large boarding school offering vocational training. It functioned as such until 1977. Since its conversion in 1996, the main building and the adjoining constructions are used by the DGRSP for the enforcement of sanctions. The large classrooms have been transformed into cells, housing sometimes up to 16 detainees. A large room, with a stage, is used for activities with the detainees; the magnificent church building offers food for thought. Inmates accommodated in a former barn, situated outside the secured area, carry out agricultural work. Large olive groves belong to the EP Izeda, which uses the village olive press.

General layout of the prison inside the fence

"A majestic building with an impressive architecture, converted into a unique prison. On a cold day, we received a warm welcome."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Pinheiro da Cruz. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2020

Estabelecimento Prisional de Pinheiro da Cruz

30 km S of Setúbal | 645 places | opened 1951

This prison was created in 1951 with the designation of Pinheiro da Cruz Penal Colony, intended for “offenders of difficult correction”. With an area of 1500 hectares in a rural area, it is naturally predominantly agricultural. In the closed regime, it has four pavilions with individual cells and two dormitories, equipped with canteen, medical offices, infirmary, classrooms, professional training spaces, workshop areas, sports equipment and visiting room.
In the open regime (RAI) there are, as accommodation spaces, four pavilions, the “Bairro do Monte” and several facilities scattered around the estate, which allow the accommodation of inmates working in activities such as agriculture and livestock.

General layout of the prison inside the wall (and fence)

"This establishment, previously a penal colony, is quite similar to the ones I know from Switzerland. However, whereas the Portuguese facility was built for the most serious offenders, far from urban centers and in the form of a closed structure, the Swiss agricultural facilities are open prisons, in which inmates are mostly active in agriculture, outside the perimeter of the establishment, often away from strict control."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Ponta Delgada. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2022

Estabelecimento Prisional de Ponta Delgada

Located in the Azores | 141 places of detention | construction of the 19th century

The facility, which was previously located on the outskirts of the city and now in the middle of Ponta Delgada, dates back to the 19th century. It is still in use, although the building is long obsolete and the site should instead be intended for tourist purposes.
The current building was renovated in 1975. The two cell blocks with individual cells and collective rooms are connected by a classic entrance building housing the administration. A small unit for women is located on the upper floor of one of the wings. The facility's external area, comprises a walking yard, a fitness stand, a workshop and a 15×30m sportsfield, secured by a wall with two guard towers.

General layout of the prison inside the wall (and fence)

"It was quite a trip to the Azores. The facility is in dire need of renovation to fit current standards of imprisonment, or, better still, it should simply be replaced!"

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Beja. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2023

Estabelecimento Prisional de Beja

200 km southeast of Lisbon | 162 places | opened in 1972

The city of Beja lies in the center of the southern region of Portugal. The EP de Beja is primarily used for pre-trial detention. The building was constructed in the 1950s and was as a local prison, a so-called Cadeia Comarcã. It has been modernized and converted for use as a pre-trial detention center in 1972. Two three-story wings that opened in 2002 are attached to the original main building, which is still in use; they have an inner courtyard with a sports field. While the original building is complex, the extensions have the classic, straight shape of a cell wing.

Layout drawing prison of Beja
Shape of the new cell blocks (dark), other buildings (gray) and the base area (total 7800m²)

"On one of the hottest days of the year in 2023, the visit to this EP was another emotional experience, mostly because of a talk I had with a detainee about an author we both liked, but also for the interesting exchanges with detainees in the yard regarding our photo project."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP de Évora. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2023

Estabelecimento Prisional de Évora

130 km south-east of Lisbon | 35 places of detention | opened in 2008

According to official information, the detention facility EP de Évora has since its opening been intended mainly for the detention of inmates who exercise or have exercised functions in military or security services, and also for other categories of rpisoners deemed vulnerable who require special protection. In a large square protected by a wall, the building dating back to the middle of the 20th century has the shape of a cross, with a sports field set up next to a court yard, both of which are secured by a further wall. The two longer, two-story residential wings can together accommodate 35 persons.

Layout drawing prison of Évora
Shape of the cell blocks (dark), other buildings (gray) and the base area inside the walls (total 6'800m²)

"This was the first prison in which I shot photographs in the new phase of the project in 2023; the emotional charge was high. Since it is a prison with inmates who previously belonged to the police, the army, or other units, normally on the other side of the law, it was a strange paradox. But they were very curious about our interest in prisons."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP do Porto. Photo: Peter Schulthess, 2022

Estabelecimento Prisional do Porto

10 km north of Porto | 686 places of detention | opened in 1974

The prison accommodation space is distributed across four pavilions, in individual cells and dormitories. It has a treatment unit for inmates with addiction issues, a security section and a health unit, opened in 1997, which allows for various specialist and in-patient consultations.It has a multipurpose sports field equipped with synthetic flooring for inmates to practice various activities. The establishment has a vast workshop area, with work and teaching rooms. The prison population is essentially made up of inmates in pre-trial detention from tje region of Porto. Convicts from the north of the country who await transfer to prisons to serve their sentences are also incarcerated in this prison.

General layout of the prison inside the wall: the cell block A–D (dark), the special unit UE and other buildings (gray)

"This is a huge prison. In my shooting day, I was quite overwelmed by the large number of buildings, places and objects which I would have liked to photograph. Despite adding a second shooting day, I was unable to visit all places."

Peter Schulthess, photographer

EP de Odemira. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2023

Estabelecimento Prisional de Odemira

80 km nordöstlich von Portimão | 56 places of detention | opened in 1995

The EP de Odemira - in the Algarve - has been used exclusively for women since 1995. Compared to the main prison facility for women in Porto, the EP Santa Cruz do Bispo - feminino, this one in Odemira is intended for pre-trial and convicted female inmates of the south of Portugal. Located on the southern edge of the small town, the facility consists of a main building on two floors, with additional building for the kitchen, a room for visitors, a workshop and a classroom.

General layout of the prison inside the wall

"This was the first prison for women in which I took pictures. It happened to be in the vicinity of the EP’s telephone as some women were making calls, and hearing less the words than the music of the conversations proved the importance of this thread which connnected them to the outside world."

Luis Barbosa, photographer

EP de Silves. Photo: Luis Barbosa, 2023

Estabelecimento Prisional de Silves

250 km south of Lisbon | 62 places for men only | built in the early 1960s, reopened on 05-08-1996

Like many smaller prison facilities in Portugal, the EP de Silves emerged from a so-called Cadeia Comarcã, a penal and administrative facility from the 19th century. It was built in the early 1960s, and on 05-08-1996 it was reopened and the refurbishment and extension work, essential for its continuity, was completed. The EP de Silves consists of a square building, secured by an outer fence. It has three wings, A, B and C. Wing A has two floors. The rest of the spaces - the kitchen, refectory and visitors' room - are on the ground floor, and the classrooms are on the first floor. The EP de Silves is used primarily for carrying out pre-trial detention.

Shape of EP de Silves
Shape of the main buildung and the base area inside the walls

"When I started photographing, some inmates were busy repairing coffee machines for an enterprise – a partnership for work very appreciated by those I met. Possibilities of work are still scarce in Portuguese prisons."

LUIS BARBOSA, photographer