14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 26 April 2019 — While she waits, she retouches her lips, fixes her hair and asks another woman who is waiting next to her if this is the first time she’s come. On the outskirts of La Condesa, a prison for foreigners 50 kilometers from Havana, several women arrive for the matrimonial visit. Most are wives of inmates but there are also some like Margarita, who offer sex for money to prisoners who are far from their country.
Margarita has been preparing weeks for the Pavilion as the room where prisoners receive their partners is popularly known. “I bring a mosquito net to put on top of the bed and have some privacy because you never know if someone is looking through a gap, plus wet wipes for hygiene, food and coffee,” she tells 14ymedio. “This client has been good to me because I’ve been with him for three years and he gives me 50 CUC (roughly $50 US, or two month’s wages) each visit.”
The woman, who prefers to hide her real name, visits an English prisoner serving time for drug trafficking. “I look for prisoners who have long sentences because they last longer and because in the end a relationship is established almost as if it were a husband,” she explains. “I’ve been lucky, all the times I’ve done this because I’ve connected with serious and non-violent men.”
The current Regulation of the Penitentiary System, updated in December 2016, establishes the frequency with which an inmate can enjoy the Conjugal Pavilion in a rigorously stratified penal regime with different degrees of severity, which also takes into account if the inmate is “primary, recidivist or multi-recidivist.”
In the best case the prisoner can enjoy the Pavilion at least every 30 days, and in the worst every four months. In an explanatory note, the Regulation specifies that the duration of the visit is three hours, regardless of the inmate’s status, “with the right to eat during the same,” but sometimes “the guards take the long view and you can stay up to 12 hours,” says Margarita.
The woman, 46, is married and her husband knows that she makes a living visiting foreign prisoners. At first he did not take it very well and displayed some scenes of jealousy when she returned from visits to the prison, but then realized “the person who puts food on the table is el yuma*,” he says categorically. Now, when the payment comes to Margarita through some English friends, the husband leaves the house while the transaction is going on.
The prison benefit of matrimonial visits has existed in Cuba since 1938 when the Social Defense Code came into force, where compulsory work and study in prison and the Conjugal Pavilion was incorporated as a way to alleviate the consequences of the prolonged confinement the prisoners suffer.
In the case of foreign prisoners whose partners are unable to travel to the Island, they are often allowed a partner who charges for it. The way to find these lady companions is quite varied, but it is usually done through the trust and recommendation of a woman who is already visiting another inmate.
Many of the women who dedicate themselves to this work have worked as prostitutes in the streets. They are jineteras who, due to the passage of time or the harassment of the police, have decided to look for a “safer” sector in which to continue making a living. Others begin in the prison with the exchange of caresses for money and declare themselves “mothers of families” in need of an additional entrance.
Margarita saw a prison for the first time when she went to visit her brother in Canaleta prison in the province of Ciego de Ávila. One of the inmates told her directly: “If you come with me to the pavilion I’ll make things better for you.” She did not understand the meaning of the proposal until ten years ago when a friend told her that there was an Italian who could give her $50 if she saw him in the Conjugal Pavilion.
“The man was not bad looking and paid half in advance,” explains Margarita. Each month he sent the money and everything ended four years later when the Italian, who was serving a ten-year sentence, met another woman who was younger and charged less. “Luckily I found this Englishman that I have now with whom I am doing very well. He is affectionate and in a few years he will be released and maybe he can help me get my son out of the country,” she adds.
Some decide to change prisoners because they do not like the one they have chosen or because another offers a higher price. According to the unwritten rules, in order to change the name of the person participating in the Conjugal Pavilion, the prisoner must allow at least six months to pass between one visitor and the other, in addition to giving a good justification to the prison authorities. But like everything in Cuban prisons, it depends on what the guards decide.
The Penitentiary Regulation does not consider the Pavilion as an inalienable right, rather it is subject to the conduct of the inmates, the severity of their incarceration and the time served. Among the sanctions contemplated for certain violations of the discipline, the suspension of this benefit is included.
Yolanda is what is called “a woman of character” which is why she firmly refused to serve as a police informant when they took her to an office to propose that she collaborate. “They ’put their feet’ on all the women, especially those who have been previously signed up as prostitutes. If the prisoner left any loose ends in the investigation, the guards do anything to get information, but with me they can’t count on that.”
According to Yolanda, in order for a foreigner to receive a visit to the Conjugal Pavilion, all of the women’s information must be presented to the warden of the prison. “Then they call you in and ask you a million questions, do not even think about mentioning money!” she clarifies to all those who start new in the business. In her case, she also brings food and medicine to the inmate she “attends.”
The detail of the food introduces an additional line of work. As has been frequently reported, in Cuban prisons people go hungry. When a foreigner imprisoned in the Island manages to establish a stable link to enjoy the Pavilion, it is usually extended in parallel to the visit program where the jaba is included, that is, a bag full of food.
As these visits to bring food alternate with the Pavilion and have a frequency regulated under the same patterns, the inmate satisfies several appetites through the same person, the gastronomic, the sexual and in many cases the emotional.
Yusimín cohabits with her Cuban husband but is legally married to a Canadian who could be her grandfather. She agreed to talk about the subject but without the presence of her partner. “He knows that I am married to a foreign prisoner and when the days come when it is my turn to visit the Pavilion he becomes jealous. When I return he spends days without even touching me, but then he gets over it.”
The Canadian, is serving his sentence in a prison in La Condesa, a building that was originally conceived as one of those “schools in the countryside” where teenagers were sent to be trained as communism’s “New Man.” The rooms dedicated to the Pavilion “are not bad” according to Yusimín’s opinion. “It’s a room with everything, mattress springs, fans, closed with a single door and you have to open two bars before entering.”
What her Cuban partner does not know is that Yusimín’s plan is to go with the Canadian when he finishes serving his sentence. “This yuma has worked out terrifically for me and his family gives me many things to give him and also things for me,” she says. The condemned man has two years left in Cuba and the young woman has already shown him the photos of her young daughter with whom she intends to emigrate.
She has passed on the data of another prisoner to a cousin who has just turned 30 and already has two police warnings for being a jinetera. “If she is still in the streets, they will put her in a reeducation farm and I have already told her that the safest place for her right now is to work in a prison,” she explains, but she does not know if the cousin will pass the controls to be able to dedicate herself to ” this business.” It is the great paradox: getting a job in prison so as not to fall prey to the law.
*Translator’s note: “Yuma” is a term similar to ’yankee’ or ’gringo’ but with a more positive connotation.
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