Prison Rats / Iván García

The first time Valentín set foot in a jail, he was fifteen years old. Up and down the narrow streets of Old Havana, together with a group of delinquents, he set out to steal the purses or video cameras of the unsuspecting tourists.

“I was sent to a youth reform center in 1996. From that point on, prison has been my home. I’ve spent 12 of the last 14 years behind the bars of a cell,” Valentín recounts to me during one of his brief stints of liberty.

When he entered the slammer for the first time, he was young, black, thin, and with a full head of hair. In 2010, I see in front of me a bald man who lacks many teeth, with two cuts on his neck from some sharp object, and with a face and physical make-up that would inspire fear.

“In jail, I have had more than one problem. The treatment of common criminals by the guards is violent and humiliating. We are non-persons. The Cuban jails are a jungle. Only the strong survive,” he points out, as he drinks a vile beer at an improvised bar.

When Valentín is free, he returns to his old adventures. He is a first-class anti-social. His way of life is to rob or swindle the unwary. He knows nothing else.

“I do not see myself living on a miserable salary. I like weed and rum, white women, and to dress well. My way of obtaining all that is stealing. For me, there’s no other way,” he said, without pretense.

Eighty-eight percent of the common (non-political) prisoners in Cuba are black or mestizo. These two groups make up 50% of the population of the entire island. In general, they have the hardest lives. Their families are madhouses. Violent crimes are usually committed by blacks.

The Martell brothers are also black. Two boys who speak rapid-fire slang. From age 13, their lives have been one transgression after another.

Six months ago, they were on the street. And now they’re next in line to visit prison. “We’re awaiting a hearing, where the prosecutor is asking for 12 years,” they tell me, in an almost jocular way. They add, “Our partners in jail are already saving us a bunk.” To be prisoners is the natural state of being for the Martell brothers.

The worst part is that in Havana, young black, marginalized youth, who believe themselves to be tough, abound. They are prison rats. Roberto Dueñas, age 22, has been in jail for 7 years. He carries a sentence of 43 years. He entered for a minor infraction with a sentence of 3 years.

But once in the system, he killed a couple of inmates, choking them with his own hands. And one afternoon in 2009, together with a group of prisoners, he rioted, trying to take over the jail located in the outskirts of the province of Camaguey, 600 kilometers from the capital.

If, one day, Dueñas gets out of jail, he’ll be 58-years-old. Without a wife or family. In a letter he mailed to a friend, full of spelling errors and in childish handwriting, he confessed that he does not regret it.

“Here in the tank (jail), what matters is force, to earn respect and the benefits that make life more bearable. If my life is to die in jail, so be it. I will never permit another man to be above me. The only person above me is God,” wrote Dueñas to his friend.

The government of the Castro brothers has never offered data on the number of common prisoners on the island. Nor on the number of jails. The environment in which these youths grow up is fertile ground for delinquency.

The worst part isn’t the silence. Rather, that the Cuban State doesn’t have a solution for the problem of a society that grows more unstable and violent.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Gregorio

August 17, 2010