One cold evening with a persistent drizzle, the poet and journalist Raul Rivero in his apartment in the Havana neighborhood of La Victoria, told me that the worst thing in prison was when it came time to sleep.
Every night, while sleeping in his damp prison cell in Canaleta, Ciego de Avila, he was a free man. In those late nights he would fantasize jumping the wall and quietly drawing back the Chinese bolts.
Then he drank coffee with friends, and suddenly relaxed and happy moments shared with his mother, wife and daughters returned
All the charm was broken when the bell went off and the passage of military boots hitting the floor or announcing a search deep into the cell. For Rivero sleep was the hardest.
To the 75 prisoners from the Black Spring of 2003, those years in prison seemed like centuries. They were not criminals. Or terrorists. They had not broken any law that would endanger national security.
In summary trials they fabricated a string of nonsense useful to the government of Fidel Castro. Their weapons were the pen and the word. The incriminating evidence presented to the prosecution were books, typewriters and laptops.
Oscar Elias Biscet, slept many years in a dreadful punishment cell. Upon release, the independent journalist Jorge Olivera looked to be twenty years older and carried a string of illnesses. Orlando Zapata died in prison as a result of a prolonged hunger strike. Ariel Sigler crossed the threshold of his cell turned into a human wreck.
When a straight and honest man knows who has committed no crime and the truth is on his side, it is very difficult to break him. And usually he is not bent by questioning in the style of the KGB, with threats, humiliation and corporal punishment.
In the prisons where they served their sentences, the dissidents never failed to report the brutalities that occurred within the prisons. I remember Pablo Pacheco, from his galley in Canaleta and with the help of friends, started a blog where he told stories had seemed taken from a book of horror.
The history of political imprisonment in Cuba is terribly painful. Someday, an important day, we will hold a minute of silence for the political prisoners who died in prison on the island.
If jail is rigorous for the opponents, what about the abuses common criminals receive. Yoilán, 26, has suffered from the severity of the Cuban penal system since age 14.
Yoilán does not consider himself to be innocent. He was a thief. He was stealing money or items of value to tourists. Being a teenager he was in a juvenile rehabilitation center.
“The prison guards, for any discipline, handcuffed you to the fence and kicked and beat you with batons. Sometimes using high-voltage electrical appliances. No matter that we were barely children,” recalls Yoilán.
In adult prisons, beatings and abuse are almost a norm. One would like to know the number of common prisoners killed as a result of beatings by the prison guards.
Prisons are not hotels. But corporal punishment and verbal abuse by those who care for the punished should be prohibited. It is enough that these men and women who committed crimes serve their punishment behind the bars of a cell.
If we speak of activists like Sonia Garro, Ramón A. Muñoz or Niurka Luque, imprisoned since mid-March, then the injustice is twofold. Their only ’crime’ was to claim a handful of rights in peaceful street protests.
Fortunately, in most nations of the planet you cannot go to prison for being a political opponent. China, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Burma and some African country or other as well as Cuba. It’s a shame.
August 12 2012