Inside a Cuban Prison

Maybe you read my recent post Inside a Cuban Posada, where I sneak a peek (cockroaches and combs included) into the island’s love hotel business. This post follows in that same vein – providing readers a first-hand, behind the scenes look into things wild and weirdly Cuban – though this one doesn’t contain photos for reasons too obvious to state.

To be clear: I’ve never been arrested, in any country (knock on wood). Rather, pulling back this veil on Cuban jail is possible due to some very unfortunate events that unfolded like this:

My friend – let’s call him ‘Miguelito’ – was hanging out on the Malecón one torpid Thursday night. A fight broke out nearby having nothing to do with, nor involving, Miguelito and his piquete, who were just sharing a bottle of rum on Havana’s seawall. But when the cops arrived to break it up, they detained everyone in the vicinity and patted them down. Miguelito froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights and remained paralyzed while six or so of his friends were searched, each one anxiously, surreptitiously tossing anything incriminating over the wall and into the bay. But not Miguelito. The police found a blister of Ritalin in one pocket and $7CUC in the other. Ritalin, known as ‘titi’ among the Cuban pill popping crowd, is produced domestically and taken by prescription, but also recreationally. Maybe it’s a popular rave/party drug were you live too. I wouldn’t know. I left the States even before the Special K craze and the strongest pills I take are ibuprofen. Anyway: major problem for Miguelito.

He was taken to the police station in Havana Vieja for booking. Word hit the street the next day. His girlfriend – let’s call her ‘Esther’ – and those in his inner circle tried to keep his imprisonment on the Q.T., but Miguelito is a super social guy, with lots of friends of different ages, from different neighborhoods. And besides, this type of information – Miguelito’s in jail! – fuels Cubans’ vice for gossip and drama. Miguelito is a close friend of mine and I bristle at random people hitting me up for the skinny. They don’t care how Miguelito and Esther are doing, they just want a piece of hot gossip. One of Migue’s supposed friends – one of those who was there went it all went down – had the chutzpah to say to me: ‘he’s an idiot. He should have ditched the pills. He had the chance.’ Passing 20-20 hindsight judgement on your buddy who is now sweating his balls off in an overcrowded jail while you’re drinking a Bucanero at noon and sweet-talking a foreigner? Classy, dude. Similar conversations and scenarios unfolded in the ensuing weeks while we collected money to contract a lawyer and tried to keep Esther from falling over a psychological or emotional cliff. Working full-time, navigating the penal and judicial systems, separated suddenly from her partner of four years – she lost weight, grew pale, took up smoking and got increasingly pissed at Miguelito’s so-called friends. ‘Not one of them! Not a single one has called me to ask how he’s doing. Let alone me. The shitheads!’

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

She kept us informed: ‘he was transferred to the Combinado del Este.’ This was bad news. About a 30-minute drive from Habana Vieja, it’s a bitch to get there and is known as the roughest prison around. ‘They cut off all his hair.’ This was expected news, but it was a shock, still. Miguelito had beautiful tresses down to his ass. I used to let out a small squeal every time he came into the café with his hair loose. In this heat, it wasn’t that often that we got to see Miguelito’s mane. Esther fought to keep his hair. ‘It’s totally against regulations,’ they told her. She fought on. They said ‘No’. She kept fighting and they finally relented, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into a plastic bag. When Esther got home, it stank, having been stuffed, damp, into a bag. She untangled it the best she could and saved some for when he’s released. Who knows why, but I would have done the same. The rest she sold – to someone who wanted long hair for their ‘Santería Barbie.’ This is not a Real Barbie, but a doll used in Afro-Cuban religions. They gave her $10CUC. ‘I could have gotten $40 for extensions from my hairdresser if it hadn’t been so tangled and smelly,’ she told me. We learned that Miguelito wouldn’t give up the name of the person who sold him the pills – the guy’s no rat. We also learned that he hadn’t been sentenced yet, but the worst case scenario was eight years. Miguelito won’t last eight days in prison, I thought, my heart dropping. He’s a smart, articulate guy, a nerd who’s prone to wax eloquent about the new Samsung phone and The Big Bang Theory.

About this time, he started showing up in my dreams. Nothing untoward mind you, he just began making cameos with all his hair, in all its glory.

Last week, Esther, another close friend and I had the chance to visit Miguelito. He’s allowed three visitors maximum, every 15 days; names of visitors have to be submitted at least a week before his authorized visiting day. We contracted a rickety Dodge to take us out there for $10CUC (that Barbie money came in handy). We would have to make our own way back. Exiting the tunnel under a summer sherbet sunrise, we followed signs to the beaches – Playas del Este and Varadero. But we weren’t going to the beach. The long, tree-lined drive to the entrance was more like a lead in to a botanical garden or country club than Havana’s notorious hoosegow. But we weren’t going to a garden; we weren’t going to the club. The framboyans were afire with orange blooms and the grass neatly clipped (not surprising giving the surfeit of manual labor on hand). We helped Esther drag out everything she’d brought for Miguelito: his lunch; a small duffel stuffed with razors, soap, a towel, washcloths, and other personal items; a five gallon jug of purified water; and a giant white sack in which Cuba imports rice (from Brazil or Vietnam). Every visitor had a sack like this, cinched with a piece of rope, and crammed with toilet paper, powdered fruit drink, crackers, cookies, bags of puffed wheat, hot dogs, and lots and lots of cigarettes – a valuable coin in the incarcerated realm. Each pack had to be stripped of its plastic casing, the silver foil removed. Menthol Hollywoods are the most coveted, but there were also Populares, H Upmanns, and Criollos, the uncut black tobacco cigarettes which taste sweet, like cancer candy. People in the breezy waiting room unwrapped cigarette packs furiously as we waited for Miguelito’s name to be called.

The grim looking guy on a raised platform at the front of the room was barking into his microphone. We didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but once in a while he’d shout sternly: ‘sit down! Wait for the name to be called!!’ He wore olive green and owned his authority. ‘MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ!’ We rushed to the platform. He checked our ID cards against Miguelito’s approved visitor list. When he saw my ID, he paused. I held my breath. Everyone said that foreigners can visit prisoners, but like much in Cuba, I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw it, until it actually happened. ‘When you get to the next checkpoint, tell the officer that Peña Blanca said you can enter. He’s probably never seen one of these ID cards before.’ I exhaled. First hurdle cleared. We waited to pass to the next checkpoint and I looked around at all the women and children – they outnumbered adult male visitors four to one – coming to see their husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, and sons – it dawned on me that this was the first time in 15 years that not one Cuban here cared that I was Yuma. There must have been 150 people waiting for their person’s name to be called and I received not one double take, nary a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow silently saying ‘yuma?! What is she doing here?’ It was a revelation – I’m so used to being a sore thumb, an odd combination of welcomed and singled out, accepted, but different. In short, I’m accustomed to being constantly reminded of my otherness, my non-Cuban-ness. But not here. People couldn’t care less – they had more pressing issues. If only the reality outside these four walls could be as natural and laidback. Oh, the irony.

We passed in groups of 15 to the next checkpoint where all the duffels and sacks, satchels and purses passed through an X-ray machine. We walked through the metal detector to the next checkpoint where each bag, bundle and Tupperware was individually searched. The white rice sacks were opened and their contents inspected. Esther had brought olives, whole wheat crackers, chocolate, cookies and a ton of other stuff which looked more like a Parque Almendares picnic than a prison visit. Once receiving the green light, the sacks were sealed with a bright blue zip tie and stacked behind the inspection counter. The visitor receives a numbered claim tag (a ‘chapita’ in Cuban Spanish) corresponding to their loved one’s sack which they give to the prisoner during the visit, the convict claiming their sack once the truck transports them to the cell blocks.

It was now going on 11am – we’d arrived just shy of eight. Those with experience brought full lunches to share during the visit. There were pork steaks and sweet potato, congris and avocadoes. I watched as guards dug to the bottom of tubs of rice and beans, stabbing to the bottom with a fork, looking for hidden contraband. The avocadoes were cut in half. Afterwards I learn that avocados, bananas, and guava can be injected with a syringe, with what I don’t know. Can you smoke a banana? Snort an avocado? Someone brought a sheet cake, decorated with electric blue icing. Cuban cake can leave a lot to be desired, but this one would be appreciated, horded, traded piece by treacly piece, I was sure. We passed through one last checkpoint where we handed over our ID cards, got a chapita to claim our cards upon leaving and headed to what’s called the ‘sterile area’ to wait for the long walk to the visitors block. The view through the breeze blocks was spectacular, a panacea – rolling green hills and towering palms, flowering trees hosting songbirds who darted in and out of the waiting room. Finally the door was unlocked and we walked about a half kilometer, outside, to pass through two giant steel gates to the visitor room.

The guard barked Miguelito’s name. I didn’t recognize him when he emerged. Shaved close to the skull and without his signature goatee, he looked edgier, angrier, and without his easy smile. He had a dimple on his chin I’d never seen all the years I’d known him. The room had a couple of dozen concrete tables arranged in two rows, with enough bench space for four people. Men had to sit on one side, women on another. It was prohibited to mix genders, so Miguelito and Esther had to reach across the table to hold hands. Everyone was chain smoking – including Esther. She updated him on progress made by the lawyer – none. She updated him on permission for conjugal visits – she was still waiting for the paperwork on her obligatory HIV test. We shared plastic cups of orange soda and crackers smeared with mayonnaise Esther had packed. We couldn’t stretch our legs; the concrete extended from tabletop to floor, to prohibit any footsie or passing items below. We gave Miguelito the books and magazines we’d brought. ‘Conner, this is hell. Every move, every conversation is cause for ribbing and abuse. I told Esther not to bring the pink Tupperware,’ he said motioning to the container with his dessert. ‘I’m going to take a lot of shit for it.’ He was tormented, worried about Esther (‘please don’t smoke, amor. It’s bad for you’), worried about his sentencing, worried about his sanity. He had to fit in enough to not get the beat down, but was terrified of acculturating. ‘I can feel myself changing,’ he told us. ‘Using slang I’ve never used before and swearing like a sailor’ (or a criminal, I thought). He was having problems in his cell block, which housed 50 bunks. His bottom bunk mate wet his bed every night. The other prisoners taunted the guy, and sometimes hit him. Miguelito defended him once – he’s that kind of guy. Then the abusers turned on Miguelito. He put in for a bunk transfer that had yet to come through. He described the bathroom scene – 16 urinals, 16 sinks and a couple of stalls. There was no room to maneuver between them without making physical contact. He applied for a job in the accounting department but was afraid to get it – jail isn’t a good place to be the Smart Guy.

All the prisoners wore grey vests, white t-shirts and grey pants. They were surprisingly fashionable like cargo pants without the pockets, but the vests were fitted, showing off the muscles of some, the sinewy wrinkled arms of the old timers. Miguelito had fast figured out the hierarchy – he’d been inside a little over a month at this point – and had some budding alliances with the over 60 crowd. They had prison cred for time served and were decent at holding up their end of a conversation. Esther and Miguelito talked about his case; me and my other friend fell silent. We wanted to be upbeat. We tried. We successfully stemmed tears. I didn’t mention the collection we took up to defray legal costs – some lawyers, including Miguelito’s, are now private sector workers for hire. I encouraged him to put pen to paper; he had a bookful of experiences now. He told us how he traded two cartons of cigarettes and a bag of crackers for a pair of boots; a pair of socks set him back 13 packs of Hollywood menthol. If socks cost just 13 packs, the boot guy must have been jonesing something fierce.

The guard blew his whistle and started shouting. Visiting hour was over. We hugged hard and promised to come back soon.

Miguelito still shows up in my dreams and the lawyer still hasn’t done shit, but Esther and Miguelito have a conjugal visit in the ‘Pabellón’ next week. We’re sending condoms. And all our good thoughts. Miguelito still hasn’t been sentenced, but we hope he’ll be out soon.

UPDATE #1: I saw Esther last night. She looks skinnier, more stressed, and a bit run down. And she is a beautiful young woman. The update is not good news: the lawyer whom we’d raised funds to contract and which Esther is working her ass off to pay, split the country, taking the money. He had done NOTHING regarding Miguelito’s case: he just strung her along, told her he had done A, B, and C and kept taking money. He had several cases which he was handling and did the same to the rest of his clients. Please, let karma rain down hard on this DB.

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17 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track

17 responses to “Inside a Cuban Prison

  1. Elizabeth Holt

    What an unbelievable story. Good luck to Miguel & Esther. Hope to hear a follow-up story with good news soon.

  2. Ian Sergeant

    Oh Conner, I’m so sorry. I hope that things work out in the end for ‘Miguelito.’

  3. haibowang628073127

    I like the story and hope to read more.

    I know a Cuban from Guantanamo who stayed in Jail for 3 years for planting 12 pots of Marijuana, and another 2 years for keeping some quantity of it in his pockets, total 5 years. His last year of study for his master degree in medical statistics was interrupted as I was told ( I had no way to verify ). Then he moved to Habana. Without the “resident card “, he couldn’t stay in Habana, so he married a Habana woman for “business”. Cubans seem famous for sweet-talking to foreign women, yet their own vulnerable women in love are not immune neither. His wife(now ex) ended up crazily in search of him in every conner of Habana…

    Then one day in 2012, he was picked up on a street selling fish by an Australian woman who was in an open relationship with an Ausie man just beside… He was picked up by this foreign woman with a great heart of empathy and charity, yet this woman went financially bankrupt and heart broken in 2016… 😦

  4. Dear Connor, This is a horror story and I wish there was something I could do. All this over one pill? You’d think they would take Miguelito and guys with such a small offense and put them to work…there is much to be done: fixing sidewalks, filling potholes, growing food…but that would be to logical. I mean why incarcerate a young, able bodied young man, at a cost…when he could be productive. Very sad. My visit to Cuba opened my eyes to many things…and have been researching how to be a part of some positive investment or change for such a lovely country and such brave people. Please keep us informed on the case.

    • Hi Linda. Yes, Cuba is nothing if not eye-opening! Just to clarify: prisoners are put to work – in a lot of different ways, including those you mention. And it wasn’t one (which holds ten to twelve pills). When/if you find ways to contribute positive change (technically its illegal for foreign individuals to invest here – with both govts) please share! cheers

  5. christine a decourtney

    Connor, your writing skills bring me right into the visit with all of you…and right into the story of what is happening. Please update us, I feel I know Esther and Migueilto.

  6. haibowang628073127

    As I know, they should, maybe try “bribing”. The Australian woman with her Guantanamo ex-cuban boyfriend had managed to get a friend out from jail by paying some bribe( I believe that is true). Maybe, in Cuba, the legal legal way won’t work.

    Concerning working ethics, Cuba is completely a lonely planet with its people great at promising but not at delivering on time or anything. According to my experience, the one I dealt with is a blackhole that could never be filled. Promises are the best he could do, afterwards, nothing matters.

    I figured that “empathy” should have strict limits and people from other countries, unless like Ms Conner, should live their lives and let the cubans live theirs. Otherwise, empath with its good intentions might very well turn into dangerous traps, for everyone.

    As Daoist Lao-Tzu said: The holy heaven has a plan for everyone. Follow the path each one is put on and let others mind their own business. Yet I do understand Christian spirit…

    Cheer!

  7. Jenny Cressman

    Wow! What an awful (but well-written) story. I hope he does write about his experiences; it would probably help he survive this unimaginable nightmare. And, I hope more profoundly that a solution will present itself and will be acceptable to him.

  8. jon m

    Your blog is alternately entertaining, informative, insightful, and depressing. You have this amazing country, this incredible, resilient people (I guess, what choice do they have, although they do seem to maintain a remarkably positive spirit), and you have these selfish super-power governments ruining it from without (i.e. the US embargo and Soviet abandonment), and then you have it’s own government’s seeming lack of imagination or progressivity failing to compensate from within. On a macro/institutional level but, reading this post, also on a very personal level.

    Then again, I guess we in the US can’t really say the punishment always fits the crime, or even that justice is applied with a blind eye — we have plenty of examples of not walking our talk, many probably even worse than Miguelito’s circumstances. I guess it’s just sad to see this anywhere, with the very human effects it has. But the way you paint it, one certainly feels for Miguelito and his loyal crew.

    And yet Cuba goes on, managing to be charming in the process (for all the reasons we’ve seen in your many posts and in person for ourselves); at least to a visitor. (But also to my Cuban girlfriend who continues to miss and long for what sounds to me like a pretty challenging if not outright difficult life, a fact that says something, tho I know not what, yet).

    Good luck to your friends, I hope things turn out well, and quickly for them.

    Next time I’m in Havana, if the orange lunatic doesn’t foul things up, we’ll be sure to stop by your bookstore.

    • Thanks Jon (I think?!) But I suppose Im channeling Cuba pretty damned well if my writing is “alternately entertaining, informative, insightful, and depressing.” Throw in an 18 peso mayabe or a box o’ planchao and that’s pretty much Cuba in a nutshell!!

      The reality is actually more depressing, in this case, than I portray. The justice system here can be wildly inconsistent, even arbitrary, no matter how good your lawyer is. We’ve started taking up another collection among friends for Miguelito’s 2nd lawyer now that the first has inauspiciously split the country with his clients’ money and their paperwork and appeals gathering dust in a desk drawer. Sigh.

      Im not surprised your girlfriend pines for cuba. I don’t know where you live but as Dorothy said, clicking her heels…..

      Thanks for reading and writing in.

    • haibowang628073127

      I know that, no matter how terrible “we”think their country might be, people who grew up there in that particularly special and thick culture in its own ways will be bound to “miss” it. Different values are held strongly by long formed habits and customs, and most importantly life styles are hard to change or take a long time to adapt to. Those unprepared Immigrants are like fishes without water. Cubans yearn for their Malécon!

      According to the statistics, half of the Cubans who got out from their country by marriages failed. We read many many complaints about Cubans ‘ infidelity, yet I see it as that it is a hard cultural journey for two people(cuban/a and the one from other countries), yet half of them were not culturally prepared and thus they were blind.

      • According to statistics, 50% of ALL Cuban marriages end in divorce (ie regardless of whether the spouse is Cuban or foreigner, whether they live here or elsewhere) so the phenomenon is much more than just ‘un pez fuera de tarima’. Speaking from experience, I know how hard bi-cultural marriage can be.

  9. Jenny Cressman

    More and more marriages everywhere are ending in divorce, even among whitebread-eating WASPs with no cultural challenges!

  10. nice article. keep it up and sharing. 🙂

  11. haibowang628073127

    Conner: indeed, you are right. So the marriage failure has not much to do with cultural differences and social environment change. It has more thing to do with human nature. So the failed cubans in relationship in other countries did try their best, and yet we say that it seems the change of environment and cultures are the first things that killed it (they didn’t help at least). I read somewhere that the most infidel couples in the world are the Danes.

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