It’s the maximum security prison in Cuba. It’s located at Kilometer 13 and a half on the Monumental Highway, some ten kilometers from the center of Havana. At the entrance, a sign in English warns that it is forbidden to take photos. On visiting days, families arrive in droves at the entrance, loaded down with huge bags of food for their imprisoned family members.
“I bring him cigarettes, dark sugar, crackers, toast, powdered soft drinks and preserves, that by prison rules have to fit in plastic containers,” says Elena, 63 years old, who every 45 days makes the trip from the village of Artemisa, some 70 kilometers from the capital, to visit her son and bring him provisions.
In order to enter the prison, you have to pass by two security barriers, where at each one they check your identity card. To visit a prisoner, you first have to include your name on the card where he is authorized to receive up to 5 people at one time, over 18 years of age.
The strictness varies in accord with the “dangerousness” of the prisoner and the number of years he is serving. For those with minor crimes, they can have a visit every 21 days and a conjugal visit with fiançées or spouses every three months. For political prisoners who are in the Combinado del Este prison, like Doctor Oscar Elias Biscet or the independent journalist Ricardo González Alfonso, they are authorized to receive a regulation visit every 45 days and a conjugal visit every six months.
After going through the first line, you arrive at a door of aluminum and glass where electronic equipment scans the packages brought to the prisoners, common or political.
A sign informs you that the prisoners cannot receive eau de cologne, medicine or food in glass or metal containers. Neither is it permitted for women to wear low-cut blouses and shirts, short skirts or provocative clothing.
An official, brown as petroleum and with deficient syntax, joins the family members and explains what can happen if they wear garments that can arouse the fantasies of men who spend years without having sex with a woman.
“Some days ago a prisoner sliced the neck of another because he was looking at his wife in a lascivious way. Those who don’t have family or any one who comes to see them, often go at visiting time to see the women and later, in the solitude of their cells, masturbate. Even in the bathrooms of the visiting room prisoners have been caught beating off,” indicates the official.
And because of that, he adds, the spouses, daughters, sisters and female friends ought to dress modestly and with pants. Very angry, the official says: “Recently, relatives of the prisoners walked off with a piece of the bathroom sink. We have fixed it, but remember that any perforated cutting object is a weapon inside the prison.”
After the scolding, the relatives are invited to form a line, to pass by in order. An electronic arch scans all the visitors. It’s prohibited to bring in cameras, recording equipment and cell phones. Each person has to bring his identity document, which is kept until he leaves.
The visiting room is a long, narrow compound, with tables and cement seats on both sides. When you are inside you can’t leave until the two and a half hours of the visit have been completed. Several officials with a lumbering aspect walk around the room with a heavy step.
The prisoners sit facing the women; the men can sit beside visiting males. In this time they are permitted to eat and drink juices, soft drinks or fruit shakes. The room is painted in a dark tan color, which gives it a gloomy feeling.
From this place you can see the prison hospital. It’s large, painted in white, and, according to the common prisoners, for several weeks the prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, was there, wavering between life and death after 86 days on a hunger strike.
At the side of the visitor pavilion, there is an athletic field that surrounds a baseball diamond. At the back you can see three masses of concrete and stone. These are the prison barracks, with a capacity of 10,000 prisoners.
There are three buildings of four floors each. They are known by their numbers, One, Two and Three. In One are the prisoners with the longest sentences: Cuban-Americans accused of human trafficking, foreigners who are completing sentences in Cuba, and several political prisoners from the Black Spring of March 2003.
A common prisoner who is serving 18 years behind bars indicates that the food in general is abysmal, but “now it is better, thanks to the pressure from the human rights people and because they expect the visit of a special envoy from the United Nations.”
When he is asked about the treatment, he looks both ways, asks that his name not be published, and in a low voice says that the abuse from the guards and the beatings are something normal in the Combinado del Este, “above all, of the common prisoners who have committed crimes,” he emphasizes.
Now at the exit, the men have to wait in a walled-off gate until the prisoners that received a visit are brought back to their cells. After the official at the door receives the communication that they have done the recount and all of them are in their respective barracks, he gives back the identity cards to the men over 18 years who visited some relative or friend that day.
When you leave the gigantic prison, and a strong spring sun accompanies you on your return trip to the city, the tension relaxes. And the ambiance of oppression and confinement you suffered for more than three hours goes away.
The sea that surrounds the Monumental Highway and its pygmy palms give me goose flesh, when I think about the almost 9,000 prisoners in the Combinado del Este who for many years cannot enjoy freedom and be together with their families. Some, like Oscar Elías Biscet, Ricardo González Alfonso and Ángel Moya, are completing 20 years of an unjust prison sentence. Only for having a different opinion from the government and writing what they think.
They purge their convictions closed up in buildings of stone and concrete. A few kilometers from a sea of intense blue. And those jagged palm trees that communicated to me peace and freedom.
Translated by Regina Anavy