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Tough Times in Cuba's Prisons

Former inmates describe abuse by warders as well as poor health, sanitation and nutrition.
By Arián Guerra Pérez
  • A prison perimeter watchtower. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
    A prison perimeter watchtower. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
  • Visiting time at the Granma provincial prison. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
    Visiting time at the Granma provincial prison. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
  • Prison gates. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
    Prison gates. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
  • A school building refitted to serve as a prison. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)
    A school building refitted to serve as a prison. (Photo: Arián Guerra Pérez)

Former political prisoners in Cuba say conditions in jail are poor and inmates are often subject to abuse.

Official data from 2012 showed Cuba with a prison population of 57,300, or 508 per 100,000 people. A study by the International Centre for Prison Studies at Essex University indicated that Cuba had the world’s sixth highest prison population, based on a 2013 rate of 510 per 100,000 in the world.

The figures are disputed by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), whose head Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz has been investigating convict numbers. Sánchez estimates the prison population at up to 70,000.

“Cuba is literally a huge penitentiary centre,” the Cuban Human Rights Observatory, headquartered in Madrid, says. “Half a century on, there are around 200 prisons for 11 million citizens. The population has multiplied by two, but prisons have multiplied by a factor of 14.”

Using the government total of 200 prisons – excluding juvenile detention centres – Cuba now has one prison for every 56,000 people, compared with one per 422,000 people in 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution took place.

The government says that reoffending rates are low and that half of all prisoners are able to do paid work, study, or learn a trade while they are on the inside.

In 2013the government provided a highly orchestrated “conducted tour” of four prisons for foreign journalists. (See Cuba Grants Prison Access on Own Terms.) Speaking at the time, Major Jorge Fonseca, the governor of La Lima prison, said the policy was to shift low-risk convicts who behaved well to the growing number of minimum-security facilities.

People locked up for their political beliefs say conditions are very far from the ideal the government tried to show in 2013.

Marcelino Abreu Bonora, a former prisoner, said he was held in buildings where water leaked through into the cells, “politicals” like him were only allowed out to exercise for four or five minutes a day, and the main daily meal consisted of minced fish full of bones.

“There are some places in the prison where you just can’t sleep – leaking roofs, ceilings falling in, 50 or 60 people to a small cell,” he said.

Opposition sources say government of glossing over the overcrowding, poor nutrition, water shortages and limited exercise periods. Inmates are able to alleviate their hunger with food parcels which relatives are allowed to bring every six weeks.

The authorities have increased the number of jails by converting schools. These include a secondary school in the town of Juraguá, Cienfuegos province, and two in a rural area of Motembo, Villa Clara province.

The Juraguá facility now holds 500 inmates from the bigger Ariza prison. They are employed in charcoal production.

Lázaro Yosvani Montesino Hernández spent time making charcoal after he was jailed in 2003 for taking part in an opposition event in Havana. After the Güira de Melena prison, where he was tasked with cutting down timber for commercial use, he was transferred to a jail in Matanzas province, and employed to cut down trees to make charcoal – with no safety regulations or basic working conditions.

In the accompanying film, former inmates talk more about conditions and abuse at the hands of warders.

Arián Guerra Pérez is a Cuban journalist.

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