Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuba Grants Prison Access on Own Terms

First visit in years highlights lack of regular outside monitoring.
By Yaremis Flores Marín
  • Prison at Melena del Sur, in the Mayabeque province of western Cuba. Havana. (Photo: Gerardo Younel Ávila Perdomo)
    Prison at Melena del Sur, in the Mayabeque province of western Cuba. Havana. (Photo: Gerardo Younel Ávila Perdomo)

When the Cuban authorities offered foreign journalists rare access to the prison system last month, it was very much on their own terms.

The visit took place on April 9, less than a month before the United Nations Human Rights Council conducted its periodic review of the situation in Cuba. (See Cuba Goes Before UN Rights Body on some of the issues of concern.)

The tour for foreign and local journalists took in four institutions – the big Combinado del Este jail, a woman’s prison in Havana, an open prison and a juvenile detention centre. Cuba has about of the 200 penal institutions housing over 57,000 inmates – one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world. 

Human rights organisations say abuse is rife in the penal system, and the government does not allow outside groups to conduct regular inspections.

Four years ago, Canada, France and Britain proposed a system under which the UN and other observers would conduct periodic reviews of Cuban prisons. Havana rejected the idea. In 2009, the Cuban government invited Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture at the time, to carry out research in the country’s prisons, but neither nor his successor was able to conduct such a visit.

This track-record, and the limited and orchestrated nature of the recent visit, have raised a doubts about what the foreign journalists were shown.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roelis Osorio, governor of Cuba’s largest prison, Combinado del Este, told the visitors that detainees were not supposed to be held longer than six months.

“The time-frame for holding a court case is 180 days. Sometimes, but not often, there can be a delay of up to a year,” he said.

The limit has certainly been exceeded in the case of Sonia Garro, a member of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) protest group, who together with her husband Ramón Alejandro has been in prison without trial for 13 months.

On April 9 – the day of the visit – journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias was released from prison after spending six months without a court date being set. (See Freedom for Detained Cuban Journalist on his case.) He spent most of that time in Combinado del Este, but was transferred to the Valle Grande jail shortly before he was let out.

During the journalists’ tour, Colonel Osmani Leyva Ávila, deputy head of the Cuban prisons directorate said that “only seven to nine per cent” of all prison inmates were in pre-trial detention. When court cases were delayed, he said, it was only “because of the rigour of the Cuban judicial system in processing criminal cases”.

Lt-Col Osoro said the national reoffending rate for ex-convicts was only nine per cent, and described a rehabilitation programme of voluntary and paid work.

In an article published around the time of the visit, the official newspaper Granma quoted prisoners as saying they earned 700 to 900 pesos a month. That is considerably more than the average wage of 400 pesos a month, around 15 US dollars.

An ex-con who gave his name as Carlos, who recently left a type of open prison known as a Work and Study Centre, said he never received anything like those wages. 

“They paid me four pesos for weeding a furrow over one kilometre long. On average, I earned 120 pesos a month,” he said. “The working day was seven in the morning until three in the afternoon. Lunch consisted of water with sugar and bread. I lost ten kilograms.”

Yaremis Flores Marin is an independent lawyer and citizen journalist in Cuba.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.