Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

I was sitting in my usual corner in the cafe when he walked in. It took me a second to recognize him out of context and with a good 25 extra pounds on his frame but his smile was unmistakeable. Miguel!! We were one of his first stops on his first weekend pass from prison. I smelled cafe brewing and I was excited to invite him to his first cortadito after a year behind bars.

“Amor. Time to get up,” my husband jostled me gently.

I opened my eyes and realized it was all a dream – the coffee was brewing in my kitchen, not Cuba Libro.

Before my friend Miguel was picked up for carrying 20 or so tabs of Ritalin, I had absolutely zero experience with the Cuban penal and justice systems. Now I know how to smuggle in instant coffee (just the fact that coffee, a staple of Cuban culture and diet is a prohibited item in jail seems punishment enough, especially for Miguel who is a tremendous ‘cafetera’) and know that inside, nine packs of Criollo cigarettes procures a homemade electrical coil to heat that illicit cafe. I know, too, that Miguel’s haircut cost five packs of Criollos and later learned that in the Cuban clink, different types of cigarettes carry differing values. In ascending order: uncut Criollos (forget bringing Titans or Populares to your loved ones inside – even there, people are loathe to smoke them); H Upmann; Hollywood white, red, green, and the highly sought after black. Seems no one is trafficking imported Lucky Strikes or Dunhills, which cost upwards of $3CUC on the outside.

Since my first visits some nine months ago, I’ve learned that I can leave my cell phone with the parking lot attendant for $1CUC for the duration of the visit and that Miguel and Esther can procure a coveted overnight conjugal visit for $50CUC – what she makes in a week working at a fancy Air B&B. Some families have had success securing their loved ones’ release for $500 to $1000CUC (a small fortune here), but not Miguel; there’s zero tolerance for drug offenses here as of late.

During this most recent visit, Miguel was considerably, visibly depressed. He was resigned, bordering on hopeless.

“Screw the appeal. Four years, six years, it doesn’t matter,” was the tenor of our conversation. His appeal was denied I found out this week: his sentence of six years stands.

His outlook was the opposite of what I expected. I thought Miguel was going to fall apart when first incarcerated. And that as he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and adapted to the criminal element inside, he would settle in for the duration. But it played out in the reverse. He was strong at first, worn down as the months passed. Since his arrest in May 2017, Miguel has been beaten up, contracted giardia and had a tooth pulled – medical conditions for which he was given a total of two pills, neither of which resolved the problem or pain – was put in quarantine during a mumps outbreak, and has suffered daily bullying.

“Amor. Please don’t bring my food in pink Tupperware,” he said to his wife Esther during one visit.

He wasn’t being picky – he was verbally abused every time another inmate got a glimpse of his “maricón” storage containers. In the same visit, he asked our friend Raul to sneak in a pair of shorts (along with coffee, bringing in shorts is verboten). Though the most comfortable option, sleeping in boxers is another cause for bullying and the prison-issued shorts are so hot as to make sleep elusive. Esther just popped in to remind Raul about wearing the shorts under his pants and passing them to Miguel clandestinely in the bathroom during the next visit. This is when I learned that the grey uniforms worn by convicts, of which I’ve written previously for their fairly fashionable cut, is made from the same material used to line caskets here (and I know a bit about caskets in Cuba). This is why inmates are known as the walking dead in these parts. Another fun Cuba fact brought to you by Here is Havana.

The news pertaining to Miguel’s situation is pretty grim. His rejected appeal, for starters. Truth be told, his lawyer is a bit weak. Esther thinks the state law firm appointed their bottom feeder to the case, (this happens frequently with drug convictions since they’re considered lost causes). What’s more, they’ve started moving inmates to the provinces to do agricultural labor. A contingent from Miguel’s unit was shipped off to Pinar del Río recently and word on the cell block is that he could be transferred to Camagüey to cut marabú soon. This isn’t all bad. He’ll be outside for a good part of each day and the living conditions should be a bit better. On the downside, he’ll be far – too far, about seven hours in a good vehicle – from visiting friends and of course, his wife. But even this has its benefits: prisoners moved outside their home province to do agricultural labor are usually rewarded with a reduced sentence.

When Esther came by for a coffee today (another community service provided by Cuba Libro: she drinks free until Miguel is released, a policy she tries to ignore, but we don’t let her get away with it), she had some encouraging news: if all goes as planned, Miguel should be downgraded from the Combinado del Este (Havana’s largest prison), to a campamento in September. This means more personal living space and fresh air, plus more relaxed visits. Then if all goes well, two months later he should receive his first weekend pass. Maybe my dream was prescient after all. I can’t wait to prepare his cortadito.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

  1. Tabs

    Thank you so much for the updates, it is truly another world within another world. A question about the Airbnb Esther works at, that seems like a huge wage in comparison to other wages, at ~200 CUC per month. Most casas I have stayed at have 2-3 rooms at 30-50 CUC per night. I know there has been increased tourism from the US, even with the changes in November, but that wage seems so high compared to a casa’s income. Can you explain?

    • hola Tabs. Not sure if I understand your question – she makes $50 CUC a week, $200 a month. In line with what you’ve found. Im going to review the post, maybe there’s a typo. But she earns $50/week, working 6 days a week. Thanks for reading

      • Tabs

        Thanks for the response. I am just surprised the owner of a casa would share the wealth like that. The casa I stay at for a few days for 100 CUC wouldn’t pay staff that much per week. Is it a big casa? Sorry, I guess it is really off topic, I just thought that was a lot for staff compared to the price of a room.

      • Yeah, one of my big beefs with casa owners and (most) cuenta propistas is how they take advantage of staff. this is one of the reasons why team at Cuba Libro earns a dignified salary, has a sane work week (40 hours max, according to Cuban law), earn tips and profit sharing. I think this is the only way forward for just, sustainable development. As the manager and do everything gal at this casa (it is pretty massive: 6 or 8 rooms, I cant remember) Esther is not sufficiently compensated for working 12+ hours a day, 6 days a week. thanks for reading and writing in

      • Tabs

        Wow, that is crazy. And that is a “good” salary. I hope they pay her if there are no guests. Thanks for your insights and all your writing.

  2. Alberto

    No coffee? Wow, me siento mal por él. I hope he gets new lawyer who isn’t a wimp to get him out of prison but then again I learned that these so-called “professionals” are fucking useless (excuse my language but it’s true). Like you said, at least he’s going to a slightly better prison with fresh air and a more relaxing environment where they might serve coffee, hopefully. Listen, I am Puerto Rican – Cubans and Puerto Ricans aren’t that much different from one another so I know from first-hand experience when you take coffee away from a Spanish Caribbean, it’s not pretty. Mood switch, depression, anger, negativity, hopeless, aggravated

    • In this case, the lawyer wasn’t so much a wimp or useless: there is a war on drugs here and offenders have little to no chance of any leniency. The coffee situation is bad bad bad for him but on a positive note: Miguel and Esther just received the green light for a 12 hour conjugal visit!!! The first time they will spend the night in each other’s arms in a year and a half.

  3. Robert Campbell

    Aside from being so well-written, informative and entertaining, it’s the honesty of this blog that I really love. I wish I could say the same about Cuba’s stance of what is happening in Nicaragua. I am a resident of that country, having lived in the city of León for 13 years now. Cuba would never turn its weapons on its own people but should not support a government that does. Make no mistake. That is what is happening in Nicaragua. The report in Granma by Elson Perez (June 8th) is just a rehash of the nauseating garbage spewed out daily by Rosario Murillo. The ´marginal groups’ Perez talks about are in fact the Nicaraguan population that were sick and tired of being beaten and threatened by the Juventud Sandinista when we protested the neo-liberal NOT progressive agenda of Daniel Ortega. The idea that people in Nicaragua are being paid to protest is just laughable. Those that are getting paid are the government thugs that accompany the police. There is no comparison to Venezuela here. There is no morbid celebration of the dead – just grief and justifiable outrage. What’s happening in Nicaragua is a largely peaceful national insurrection. The colossal Mother’s Day march of May 30th and the national strike on June 14th is abundant evidence of this. I suggest Mr. Perez get off his well-air conditioned butt in Havana and do what a real journalist would do and actually visit Nicaragua and talk to the people manning the barricades.

  4. Bren

    Thank you for always giving us up dates, as I too have a family member in cuba that recently was locked up and given two yr sentence. it is never easy for those doing the time, and never easy for those on the outside that are also doing the time with them. I pray he gets his spirit up.

  5. Pingback: Inside a Cuban Prison: Part IV | Here is Havana

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