News and Facts about Cuba

Cuba Grants Prison Access on Own Terms

Cuba Grants Access on Own Terms
First visit in years highlights lack of regular outside monitoring.
By Yaremis Flores Marín – Latin America
8 May 13

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 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 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, , 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 (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 – Calixto Ramón Martínez
Arias was released from prison after spending six months without a court
date being set. (See 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

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.

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