-Painting by Lori Mcnamara
December 16th 2006 could have been a day just like any other in detachment No. 1 of the Sancti Spiritus provincial prison. But that day we awoke, in addition to a requisition, with the news that Javier had just injected petroleum in his legs with the aim to have them amputated in order to receive a possible release from prison. Just two months before, Pedrito, another recluse of that same detachment, had just done the same just to find himself being confined to a wheelchair.
However, “luck” was not on Javier’s side. Apparently, he managed to pinch a vein. Since he was not attended to with the urgency that was needed, the infection grew to the point that it contaminated his whole body and he died one week after. He was only 37 years old when he died and had spent 19 years in prison. The crime for which he was sent to prison for at the young age of 18 was that of selling jewelry which he had found buried and which the government had decreed that they belonged to the national patrimony- according to one of his unfortunate companions. He was sentenced to 6 months of jail just for that act, yet he was never again released. Just before completing his entire sentence he escaped and robbed again. For this he was condemned to several years more in prison. Later, he repeated these acts on several occasions. His situation just seemed to be getting more and more complicated, and at the time of his death he still had 15 more years of jail time to serve.
But Javier is not the only fatal case of this prison. Just a few months ago a recluse of another detachment swallowed some wires, and because he was also not attended to with urgency, he died just a few days later. Self-infliction in Cuban prisons is a very common practice. Prisoners regularly lacerate their own bodies, they sew their own mouths shut (sometimes with wires), they inject petroleum into themselves (like Javier), or they even inject their own excrement, and I have also heard of some pretty unimaginable self-inflictions, like inserting wires up a urethra, poking ones eyes out, or even injecting oneself with HIV.
Before this grim scenario, which I was a witness of in more than one Cuban prison, the question arises: Why do prisoners in Cuban jails hurt themselves? I really do not know if this also happens in jails in other places of the world, but in the ones found in my country, this phenomenon was something that impacted me greatly. The reasons for such self-inflictions, in most cases, stem from the decisions made by the prison authorities to deny the prisoners the rights to certain benefits which they are supposed to have access to after having spent a certain amount of time in jail, and in accordance with good conduct, as is outlined by that very prison system. Some of these benefits include being moved to a farm or a camp where prisoners would enjoy more freedom, or also being moved to a jail situated closer to their original place of origin.
But lying behind these reasons are other ones that deserve to be analyzed on a deeper level. Perhaps, you might say, it is work that can be done by a psychologist or a sociologist. Meanwhile, according to the way I see it, these self-inflictions are greatly motivated by the feelings of desperation and impotence felt by the prisoners upon facing such a prison and judicial system that imposes long sentences for childish crimes, all the while leaving the prisoner with little or no time to occupy their minds. If prisoners were allowed to work, at least for a while, in prison, this could become a source of revenue for the recluse. Such a case would allow them to send money to family members or even to make enough to buy certain nutritional products or supplements that would provide healthier personal alternatives, which are things that are very limited in Cuban prisons. In the farms, common prisoners are allowed to work and are sometimes rewarded.
Ingenuity and creativity among Cubans is widely acknowledged, and perhaps many of these prisoners would have never engaged in criminal behavior if a free economic system existed in Cuba. In the multiple penitentiaries which I went through, I saw some prisoners put together some real pieces of art, made just by using disposable materials. However, the authorities, instead of promoting and stimulating such activities, they discourage it and prosecute it, as they confiscate, as in most cases, all the pieces of art, or prevent such objects from being handed to family members during visits. In Cuban jails the only form of entertainment allowed by the authorities is the TV. And even then, prisoners watching TV have to do so while crammed tightly in a small room along with many other prisoners- in many cases, one TV is set up for over 100 recluses. Meanwhile on the other hand, while pointing out that the majority of the penal population does not have an avid reading habit, there is very little material available to read anyway. Although libraries hypothetically do exist in these prisons, prisoners do not have access to them. I remember that in a detachment I resided in while my confinement in the provincial prison of Guantanamo, there was a room with a sign that read “LIBRARY” , but it was completely empty of books or people. It was the same room used to dispose of any garbage collected from the dining areas.
In accordance with this partial panoramic view of daily life in a Cuban prison, I think that it is not difficult to understand the level of insanity that could drive a prisoner to use self-inflictive methods as a form of escape, though sometimes, as in the case of Javier, it could be an escape to eternity.
Omar Ruiz Hernandez
Ex-political prisoner of conscience
Black Spring 2003