Many have complained about Cuban prisons, but no independent inspections have been allowed
Many have complained about Cuban prisons, but no independent inspections
have been allowed
But there have been many complaints about conditions
By Juan O. Tamayo
On a wall in Havana's Combinado del Este prison, there's a quote from
Fidel Castro boasting of his revolution's effort to educated Cubans,
even those in prison: "Wherever the uneducated may be … let's educate them."
The sign, 11 words in Spanish, has two glaring misspellings.
More than anything else, the sign today underscores the gap between the
government's repeated claims to run a humane prison system, and the
realities of incarceration in an island with few resources and little
patience with indiscipline, criminal or political.
Ten videos smuggled out the Combinado del Este prison and made public
Thursday showed foul toilets, moldy cell walls, leaking sewage and food
described as meager and worse than "animal feed."
But comparing Cuban prisons to those in other countries is impossible,
because Cuba does not allow the Red Cross, the United Nations or other
independent organizations to inspect its prisons.
"We know there are problems in prisons in Latin America, Africa and
Asia. But those are publicly known. In the case of Cuba, there is no
real information," said Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez
Although the Cuban government does not make public figures on its prison
system, Sánchez' Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation estimates the island has 70,000 to 80,000 inmates in
about 200 prisons and labor camps. Cuba had 14 prisons and an estimated
4,000 inmates before Castro's revolution in 1959.
In a country of 11.2 million people, the 70,000 figure would amount to
625 persons per 100,000. The United States had the world's highest
documented incarceration rate in 2009, at 743 per 100,000.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program at Human Rights
Watch, said he saw only prison offices when he met 10 political
prisoners during a 1995 visit, but the prisoners told him conditions
were "absolutely awful, terrible, inhuman."
Much of the information about Cuban prisons in recent years has come
from jailed dissidents because common prisoners are usually more afraid
of retribution if they go public with complaints, Sánchez said by phone
Anderlay Guerra, 33, who served four years for trying to leave Cuba
illegally, said that guards at his prison in Guantánamo often beat
prisoners and left them for hours handcuffed in a position known as The
Rocker — on their stomachs, hands tied behind their backs to the
Another position was called the Shakira because it forces prisoners to
shuffle somewhat like the Colombian singer, he told El Nuevo Herald
Thursday by phone from Cuba.
Former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer said he witnessed guards
using the Shakira on prisoners for up to three days at a time and taking
bribes from inmates. He suffered through bad food, no medicines and
hordes of mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats.
Prisoners also mutilated themselves in an effort to obtain medical
discharges, according to scores of reports, and complained that corrupt
prison officials pocket the salaries they earn by working.
Dania Virgen García, the dissident journalist who helped smuggle the
videos out of the Combinado del Este prison and has reported on other
prison conditions, noted one improvement last year.
After many complaints about the women's Manto Negro prison in Havana,
she reported last spring, authorities transferred the women to a
fixed-up low security labor camp known as El Guatao.
Prison overcrowding has long been a major problem throughout Latin
America. The Combinado del Este prison was built to house about 2,500
inmates, now holds about 4,000 and in the 1970s held 11,000, Sánchez said.
A Honduran prison where more than 350 inmates died in a fire last month
was built for about 500 inmates but had about 800, stacked in six-level
bunks. In El Salvador, its 19 prisons were built to hold 8,000 people
but now hold 24,000, according to a New York Times report Tuesday that
noted another problem in Latin American prisons: that large majorities
of the inmates spend years awaiting trials.
Sánchez noted the Cuban legal processes are much more swift. Trials
usually last only hours and three youths who tried to hijack a boat in
2003 were tried, sentenced and executed by firing squad in less than a