A life spent on a snakes and ladders board

Francisco Miguel Montes Neiro has spent 32 of the last 35 years behind bars, and is not due for release until 2021, by which time he will be 71, making him Spain's longest-serving prisoner

A part from a two-year period in the mid-1990s, Francisco Miguel Montes Neiro has been in prison since 1976: a life sentence to all intents and purposes. He is hardly the most dangerous man in Spain; he's been found guilty of small-time robberies - which he says he can prove he is innocent of - but over the years the most serious crimes he has committed are contempt of court and offenses against public safety - the sentences that he should have served out long ago.

Instead, his is a long, long story of attempted jail-breaks and failing to return to prison while on furlough. Some 24 offenses in all that mean that he will remain in jail until 2021. His life has been a game of snakes and ladders in which every time he has been sent back to prison, he has had to begin his previous sentence again, with added time for escaping, or for the offenses he has committed while on the outside. A spokesman for the Prison Service sums up his case: "He has been outside for long periods at a time, but he has always ended up committing a crime. Pardoning him simply because he has been in jail for a long time would be like giving carte blanche to anybody who has served a long sentence."

In response, his family says that he is a broken man, physically and psychologically, and has long since served his time, and represents no danger to society. "Nobody is saying that he is a saint, but he is simply a common criminal who has never actually carried out the robberies he is accused of, along with a few minor offenses against public safety," says his lawyer, Félix Ángel Martín García.

Because of his refusal to simply serve his time, Miguel remains a high-risk prisoner, and has been out of jail just once since 2009, to attend the funeral of his mother: he was allowed two hours, but failed to return. He is now in Albolote, a jail 25 kilometers outside Granada. His brothers and daughters visit him each week, although they say that the authorities do not always allow them in.

"You never know what excuse they are going to come up with. The last time I protested I wasn't allowed to visit for six months," says his brother Manolo while his son drives us to the jail. About a kilometer from the prison, our cellphone coverage disappears. "They block the signal," he explains. "There was a time when prisoners were allowed phones, and we could talk to him whenever we wanted."

We sit in the reception area, having deposited our cellphones and other belongings, waiting for 5pm, when the visiting time starts. A trustee reads the names of the visitors off a clipboard, and we file through a second metal detector, one by one.

In visiting room 19, Manolo and his son sit down to wait for Miguel. The room is narrow, and the walls paper thin. We can hear the conversation in the room next door. We sit behind a desk, separated from Miguel by a thick glass screen that rests on a filthy metal grill that both parties have to press themselves up against to speak. "It's hard to hear him, but at least this way more than one of us can talk to him," says Manolo. A lipstick print remains on the glass from the last visit.

Miguel arrives. He is wearing a light blue polo shirt, and drinking from a can of Coke. He smiles and gives his nephew a high five against the glass. He then turns to me. This is his first interview with a journalist: his first chance to tell his side of the story.

Miguel's odyssey begins in 1976, just months after the death of General Francisco Franco. Miguel was 26, and being held in the cells of the Ceuta barracks where he was performing his military service, in the Spanish Foreign Legion. His rifle had gone missing, and he was interrogated, naked and handcuffed. He says that he was repeatedly beaten over a period of five days.

On the sixth day, the sergeant who had interrogated him told him that the rifle had been found. When the NCO uncuffed him, Miguel punched him in the face. Miguel says that as punishment, he was prevented from returning to his unit, and was then accused of desertion. His troubles had begun.

Two years later, Miguel was in prison, on the same site as the present correctional facility he is in now. But it was a much more basic construction back then, and the conditions primitive, he says. "We were locked up like dogs. So we rioted. We took over the place. We set fire to the doors, which were made of wood back then. We piled up mattresses against them and set fire to the place. We weren't going to put up with being treated like dogs," he says.

Miguel's sister, Encarna, agrees to meet at the office of her brother's lawyer. She goes over the list of convictions. She highlights two, saying that Miguel was not involved.

A prisoner who has known Miguel for more than 20 years, known as Guille, says that the police forced him to implicate Miguel in a botched jeweler's heist in 1981. She says that the victim of another, in Córdoba, later retracted her statement, saying that Miguel was not involved.

"All his crimes are related to his escapes, and he has alibis, but he doesn't want to bring anybody else into this," says Encarna. She says he was convicted of a robbery in Granada when he was in prison in Málaga. "The day of the trial, he believed that he was going to be released. What else would he think? But they locked him up for four years."

Miguel's lawyer says that if time off for good behavior - along with time spent in preventive custody - is factored in his client has already served the equivalent of 41 years in jail. In April, Miguel presented an appeal to the Supreme Court asking for his accumulated sentences over the years to be taken into account, which would mean that he should have been released in 2010.

"We're not asking for him to be released because he is innocent, but because he has already paid for the damage he has caused," says Martín García.

That said, he remains optimistic that his client will be released. "The Supreme Court has told the provincial court in Granada that has handed down Miguel's sentences over the years to provide it with the details of those sentences so that it can make a better assessment of whether he has already served his time."

Miguel had already spent time behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit when he was 16. He says that when he found himself facing a lengthy term again for desertion, he had no hesitation in trying to escape at the first opportunity. The Prison Service spokesman takes a less romantic view. "Every time that Montes Neiro has been given a furlough he has escaped, and every time he has escaped he has committed a crime."

Miguel says that he regrets the offenses he has committed and at the same time insists that he can prove he was not involved in either of the robberies he stands accused of, saying that in the case of one, he was in jail at the time.

"I have never gotten close to seeing the end of my sentence, and I would escape again if I could."

He says that of the last 35 years, the only time he cares to remember is the almost three years he has spent outside of jail.

"If it weren't for those moments, when would I have been able to be with my family?" he asks. During that time he met and married the mother of his two daughters. He lived for a while in Morocco, but returned home, unable to live without his loved ones.

"Outside, I have lived every moment as though it were the last, because each moment really could have been."

Manolo is not reticent about his brother's escapes. "Do you want to talk about breakouts? We could be here all day," he says. "He has never accepted the idea that he is a prisoner."

Miguel is something of a legend within his family, and the stories of his escapes take on something of the mythological, repeated and exaggerated over the years in his absence.

"He just wants to be with his family," says his sister, remembering the first breakout, in 1979, when he was in a military prison in Ceuta for insubordination. "He discovered that the cell was near the sewers and managed to find a way out through them."

Miguel has been sentenced on five occasions for escaping from prison. The most dramatic took place in 1981, when he attempted suicide by hanging himself. He woke up in the military hospital morgue with two broken ribs and a very sore neck. He saw an open window and made his escape.

Earlier this year Miguel went on hunger strike to call attention to his case. After 120 days, under pressure from his family, he called it off. After his appeal to the Supreme Court was delayed, he went on hunger strike again, in early October, but after a week called it off. "Dying slowly is for kids. I want to live or die, once and for all." His lawyer and family say that he has hepatitis and tuberculosis.

Martín García says that he will be calling on the Interior Ministry to pardon Miguel.

In the meantime, while waiting for his next appeal hearing, Miguel passes the time reading, and writing letters.

Miguel says that before he was arrested at the age of 16, he wanted to be a plumber. During his time in prison he has learned to sculpt, and some of his pieces now fetch up to ¤

9,000. He has created several busts of flamenco singer Camarón, who he says he knew in his early days. He donated the proceedings of some of his sales to the singer's widow, who faces hardship following a ruling that her husband had no authors' rights over his material.

Shortly after he became a father for the second time, he was arrested and sent back to prison. When his daughters came to visit him, he used to tell them that he was working in a porcelain factory. He says that they told him: "Daddy, we have lots of money. There's no need for you to work, come with us."

They finally learnt that their father was an escaped prisoner when the police arrested him at home after his next escape. He says that his daughters are what keep him alive. He says he learned chess because the winner of the prison tournament is given an extra visit. He has won twice. "I'm going blind, my teeth have fallen out. Let them condemn me once and for all: I've paid for my crimes. All I want is a chance to be with my daughters," he says.

Despite his desire to be free, Miguel also recognizes that he has become institutionalized, and questions whether he would be capable of living on the outside if he were released. "There is no attempt here to help prisoners make a life for themselves out in the wider world. If I ever get out of here, I will need a psychologist, because the only life I know is in here."

With hepatitis, and at his age, Miguel says that he is tired of the eternal vigilance required to stay alive in prison. "The only company I have is a sparrow I found in the courtyard with a broken wing. It's the only living thing around here."

Miguel has managed to garner some support at institutional level. The Ombudsman, María Luisa Cava de Llano y Carrió, called for him to be pardoned earlier this year, the first such appeal in more than 35 years. But so far the Granada Provincial Court and the Albolote prison have shown little inclination to back the move.

Miguel has also managed to garner support from a number of politicians, who see his case as one that highlights Spain's harsh prison system: Ignacio Uriarte and Ignacio Pons of the right-wing Popular Party; José Luis Barrado of the Socialist Party, along with Gaspar Llamazares and Cayo Lara of the United Left.

"Miguel is the tip of the iceberg of a hidden system of life sentences in Spain," says Uriarte. He adds that the Popular Party leader, Mariano Rajoy, has proposed amending the law so that only dangerous prisoners would face life sentences. "Let's not forget that Miguel has not committed any crimes against a person, he is not violent."

The interview with Miguel is cut short as a prison officer does the rounds. "Well that's it, I have to go," says Miguel, as though returning to work. But his apparent cheerfulness fails to hide his inner bitterness: "If they had used the law of an eye for an eye, they would have hurt me a million times less than they have done."

Montes Neiro in the Supreme Court in April of this year, when the highest judicial body reviewed his case.
Montes Neiro in the Supreme Court in April of this year, when the highest judicial body reviewed his case.LUIS GASPAR
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS