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Vol. 80/No. 6      February 15, 2016

(feature article)

‘In Cuba, a prisoner is another human being’

Cuban Five: It’s different in US prisons, where the system is organized to dehumanize you

“It’s the Poor Who Face the Savagery of the US ‘Justice’ System”: The Cuban Five Talk About Their Lives Within the US Working Class, is a new book from Pathfinder. It centers on a 2015 interview by Mary-Alice Waters and Róger Calero with the Cuban Five in Havana. Each was incarcerated in the U.S. from 14 to 16 years after the FBI framed them up for activity in defense of the Cuban Revolution. The excerpt below follows a discussion on how the capitalist rulers foster the prevalence of drugs and gangs in U.S. prisons. Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

MARY-ALICE WATERS: We’ve had some experiences here in Cuba that are the opposite of what you’ve been describing. We have a friend in Matanzas, for example, a university professor who also gives classes in prison and takes pride in it. She told us about using some books Pathfinder has published in her classes and the interest they generate. We’ve read about Silvio Rodríguez and other musicians giving concerts inside the prisons. …

We know things in Cuba are far from perfect. But social relations — the way people relate to each other — are the opposite of what you experienced in the US. And that’s true in the prison system too. In Cuba the revolution carried out by the workers and farmers eliminated the economic and social system built on class exploitation, on retribution and punishment, social isolation, punitive deprivation of medical care, denial of culture and education. That’s why the US government is so determined to punish the Cuban people and destroy your example.

GERARDO HERNÁNDEZ: We were with many Cuban prisoners in the United States who had been inmates in Cuba as well. … They’d often say, “Yes, material conditions in prison” — especially in the newer ones — “are a lot better than where I was in Cuba.”

Obviously you can’t compare living conditions in the richest country in the world with the economic resources in Cuba. But most of them recognized that prison personnel here in Cuba make a real effort to rehabilitate inmates, to help them. In the United States, a prison counselor is someone who puts in his hours at work and does his best not to ever have to see you. …

The human part is essential. I often give the example of a young neighbor of mine. When he was in high school, he was involved in something that rarely happens in Cuba — what’s known in the US as “bullying.” He was studying in the countryside on a scholarship program and he was being pestered and harassed. One day he took a knife, scuffled with the other boy, and stabbed him in the wrong place, killing him.

That boy was sentenced to seven years. During that time he completed high school and went on to university. … He took classes all day, and the bus brought him back to prison. …

I recently had a conversation with a very prestigious young artist here in Cuba, Mabel Poblet. She showed me some samples of her work. One stood out to me — an installation with hundreds of red plastic flowers. “Look at these flowers,” she said. “They were made by a woman who is a prisoner in Holguín.”

“We visited the women’s prison there and met an inmate, Betsy Torres, who was making flowers,” Mabel said. “I had in mind doing an installation using flowers, so I asked her to make some for me — the ones you see here. After she was let out for good behavior, I invited her to the opening of my exhibition.”

This type of exchange is the opposite of the dehumanization that takes place in the US prison system. …

FERNANDO GONZÁLEZ: Look at what the Bureau of Prisons calls its Program Statement. It says the Bureau of Prisons encourages social contact with the outside. But in practice it’s the opposite. They put up obstacles to everything, including visits.

It’s not enough that the prisoner is 1,500 miles or more from his family. It’s not enough that many families can’t afford a plane ticket and a weekend in a motel to come see you. On top of all that, the searches and other alienating procedures family members and friends have to go through to get into the prison, not to mention the tense, uncomfortable layout of the visiting room. …

GERARDO HERNÁNDEZ: “The most important difference, what I miss most,” some Cuban inmates in the US would tell us, “is that in Cuba I had the right to conjugal visits, or to get a pass to see my family.” But not in the United States.

In federal prisons and in all but four of the fifty states, something so elementary as conjugal visits are not permitted. If they were, it would greatly reduce tensions. It would humanize people. It would be an incentive for good behavior. …

RAMÓN LABAÑINO: They don’t care whether there’s money in the budget for another handball court. That’s a big issue I had, since — in addition to reading, studying, and playing chess — sports was one of the ways I handled all those years in prison. I exercised, lifted weights, and played lots of handball. But prison officials didn’t want to paint the floor of the handball court with the kind of rubber compound that makes it easier on your knees.

That’s how I injured my knee, in fact. But medical care in prison in the US is terrible; they don’t want to spend money on that either. I went to the doctor and he told me, “Take two aspirin. Put ice on it, keep your feet up, and tomorrow you’ll be better.” They only really take care of you when you’re on the verge of dying. …

There’s money in the budget to buy better food for the cafeteria too, but it’s never fully used. I know. I worked in the cafeteria several times.

Actually, I didn’t like working in the cafeteria, because a lot of people take those jobs in order to steal food. But we don’t steal. It’s not our philosophy, not the social values we learned in Cuba. With what I ate I had enough. Frankly, I’m no good at stealing.

Here in Cuba it’s different. Our officers may not have resources, but they are trained to really help you. I’d venture to say that ethic goes far beyond the framework of the prison system to the broader society here.

In Cuba a prisoner is another human being. He’s someone who made a mistake and is in prison for that reason. It’s not like the US, where the prison population is the enemy — just as uniformed officers there see the people as the enemy. Why? Because on some level they understand there could be a social revolution in the United States some day. And their job is to contain that revolution, in order to protect the social layer that’s in power.

That’s pretty elementary. You don’t even need Marxism-Leninism to see that. But if you don’t understand this, you’ll never see why things happen the way they do in the United States. Why the police act the way they did in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. Why there’s no solution within that system. …

FERNANDO GONZÁLEZ: In Miami we saw women who were pregnant when they were arrested. When the time came to give birth, they were taken to the hospital …

RAMÓN LABAÑINO: …in chains.

FERNANDO GONZÁLEZ: Yes, in chains. They gave birth in the hospital, and two days later they were brought back to their cells without their baby.

Recently I visited a women’s prison here in Cuba. … In the United States, you know from miles away you’re near a prison. You see the walls, fences, razor wire, towers, lights, surveillance vehicles. But in Guantánamo, as we got closer, I asked, “Where’s the prison?” There was a wall you could easily jump over. Even as fat as I am, I could have jumped over it!

Inside, some rooms are like small apartments. If a woman is pregnant — or becomes pregnant, because they have conjugal visits — she can stay in one of those rooms until the baby is a year old. It’s a small room with a kitchen, where she can cook. The prison provides food for the baby and other necessities. There’s also a sewing shop.
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