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Following the military coup of 28th May 1926, both the Fortress and the town of Peniche received political prisoners and individuals with controlled residence.
In 1934 the fascist regime established the Depot of Peniche Prisoners, reporting to the PVDE (State Surveillance and Defence Police). Housed in the former buildings of the Fortress, prisoners were partly responsible for managing their daily lives – cleaning the barracks, washing clothes and preparing meals – in which they were closely monitored by a corps of the National Republican Guard.
In 1945 the guardianship of the prison was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, while the means of control remained in the hands of the PIDE (State Defence International Police).
In 1953 works were launched for a new prison, inspired by the American high-security prison model; works continued until 1961 and led to the demolition of a significant part of the old buildings.
Three prison blocks are built — A, B and C — and a sophisticated Parlatory is raised after the demolition of the old one in 1968.
The Parlatory was the area where political prisoners received visits from family and friends. The visit would take place under a great tension and could be interrupted at any time by the guards. Surveillance of prisoners and visitors was not only strict but also intimidating as the spatial layout was intended to prevent any physical contact between prisoners and their relatives. Prisoners and visitors were forced to speak very loudly so that their conversations could be heard by prison guards. There was always a guard behind each prisoner, ready to interfere in the conversation.
Whenever the guard interrupted the visit, it meant that the prisoner would be punished. Punishment could mean suspending visits, banning recreation or being taken to the “Segredo” or Secret, the dreadful punishment cell in the Round Fort.
During the fascist regime, the Round Fort was used as a disciplinary cell and, among the political prisoners of Peniche, it became known as the “Segredo”.
As a result of its rehabilitation, the Fort of Peniche Prison reinforces the repressive penitentiary system, which runs until 25 April 1974. Each block and each floor were isolated so as to prevent contact between prisoners, and two recreation courtyards were built.
Noteworthy in the new buildings is Block C, where prisoners were held in collective cells on the 1th floor; the 2th floor had an infirmary and the 3th floor housed the High Security Wing reserved for prisoners considered by the regime to be more dangerous and therefore needing to be isolated from the rest of the inmates.
The well-known collective escape of 1960 originated from this wing.
The PIDE in Peniche
The PIDE (State Defence International Police) exercised absolute power over its prison branches — Aljube, Caxias, Porto, Coimbra — and on those formally dependent on the Directorate-General for Prison Services, Ministry of Justice, as was the case of the Peniche Fortress.
Surveillance of prison wards was ensured by the Prison Guard whilst the perimeter of the Peniche Fortress was the responsibility of the National Republican Guard. However, the gatehouse to the prison was directly monitored by elements of the PIDE/DGS, so that all accesses to the Prison were under control.
The PIDE exercised ubiquitous and omnipotent surveillance of the Prison, either by direct intervention or by its internal agents or even by informants recruited in the Corps of Prison Guard officers, who carried out a double check on the entire prison life.
The opening of the PIDE delegation in Peniche in April 1965 reinforced surveillance of the Fortress, of prisoners’ family members and the population of Peniche. The PIDE monitored and controlled everything that went on in and around the Fortress as well as in Peniche. They would register the names of family members and other people visiting prisoners, noted the number plates of the cars on which they travelled, and also took note of the places where family members ate and slept and who they spoke to. They even searched those houses and submitted their owners to inquiries.
Peniche’s institutions and citizens considered to be “disaffected” from the regime were suspected of sharing “subversive” ideas and subject to police searches and even sent to prison. Fishermen were particularly targeted by the PIDE, which assessed their “state of mind”.
Solidarity with political prisoners was persistent and an important component of resistance to dictatorship in the Estado Novo.
A number of solidarity structures and commissions — at national and international level — exposed the severity of the regime, helping in mobilising, reporting and improving prison conditions, demanding better food, more contact among prisoners and the possibility of joint visits.
The struggle to improve the harsh prison conditions had some striking moments:
— Hunger strikes of 1950-1952, the latter was supported by protests from families and local residents;
— Protest of 1960 and 1962, in support of the national and international campaign for amnesty for political prisoners;
— Protest of 1963 and 1964, including a hunger strike and a prisoners’ outcry;
— Protest of 1970, for better food and medical assistance.
These struggles were only possible because prisoners, despite their solitary confinement and continued surveillance, were organised so as to ensure communication among prisoners spread across different blocks and floors, and between the interior and the exterior of the premises.
Also solidarity among political prisoners within the premises made it possible to reduce the arbitrariness to which they were subjected, by means of a system of mutual assistance, including joint protests and sharing of provisions by families, the redistribution of which, known as “commune” continued, even when it was prohibited.
The population of Peniche showed solidarity with the prisoners by making it easier for family members to take donations and giving accommodation for overnight stays, also providing emotional support and being accomplices in the escapes they witnessed.
The summer camps for children of political prisoners, promoted by the National Committee for Aid to Political Prisoners also had an important role in anti-fascist resistance. Of particular note, due to its proximity to the Fortress, was the Anjo House in Baleal (parish of Ferrel, Peniche) as from 1973.
In the early hours of 25th April 1974, a revolution led by the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) toppled the dictatorship of the Estado Novo. Consequently, a number of strategic locations and equipment all over the country was taken up and occupied by military forces. This list includes political prisons such as the Aljube, the Fort of Caxias and the Peniche Fort Prison.
By 10:30a.m. the North Group entered Peniche, under the command of Captain Diamantino Gertrudes Silva and congregating the RRAP 3 — Heavy Artillery Regiment 3, the CICA 2 — Centre for Driving Licence Auto 2, both of Figueira da Foz; the Infantry Regiment 10, Aveiro, and the Infantry Regiment 14, Viseu, with the aim of occupying the Peniche Fort Prison.
As it was the last Thursday of the month, the traditional monthly fair was being held at the Campo da Torre (Campo da República — next to the Fortress). It was abruptly stopped and dismantled by the arrival of the military contingent.
Following the refusal to surrender and give access to the prison by its director, António Leal de Oliveira, the company CICA 2 and two howitzer sections of the RAP 3, commanded by Captain Rocha Santos, laid siege to the fortification. They were positioned in such a way as to make fire, if necessary, on the Peniche Fortress. The bulk of the military column then proceeded to Lisbon, reporting to the Command Post of Pontinha.
The Peniche population witnessed the military movements with a mixture of wonder and curiosity, as they had heard of the military coup in the course of the day, through the radio and television.
After the successful military coup, on 26th April, the people of Peniche and the family and friends of political prisoners gathered outside the Fortress, awaiting the release of the prisoners, in an all-day standby. Only in the evening would they witness the arrival in Peniche of Captain-lieutenant Carlos Machado Santos and Major José Moreira de Azevedo, accompanied by the lawyers Artur Cunha Leal and Nuno Rodrigues dos Santos, sent by the MFA to negotiate the release of political prisoners.
Only in the early hours of 27th April were the thirty-six prisoners, arrested at the time in this prison, released and cheered by a jubilant crowd that had long been waiting outside of the walls of the Peniche Fortress.
In the turmoil that followed immediately after the Revolution, the Fortress served as a prison for figures linked to the fascist regime, including elements of the PIDE/DGS system.
The end of the Fortress history as a prison was symbolically marked on 26th February 1976 with the raising of the white flag after the departure to the Alcoentre prison of the former ministers of the Marcelo Caetano government and former PIDE agents, who were held here by the Armed Forces Movement.
1974 was also the year when the process of decolonisation of the overseas territories started, as a result of which thousands of refugees and returnees arrived in Portugal. Supported by the IARN — the Institute for Support of Returning Nationals — and in the absence of more suitable accommodation, the Fortress of Peniche housed some of these families in the various buildings of the old prison complex.
From 1977 to 1982, the Fortress housed the Reception Centre for the Refugees of Peniche, led by the Portuguese Red Cross, where about a hundred families were accommodated totalling more than 500 refugees/returnees.