A Visit to Cuba's Largest Prison
Posted: 06/27/11 03:30 PM ET
Nine in the morning outside Combinado del Este, the largest prison in
Cuba. Dozens of families are gathered to listen to an stern guard
shouting out the names of the prisoners. Immediately, they order us down
a narrow stretch to the sentry box where they search our bags and run a
metal detector over our bodies. They also inspect the sacks of food the
families have been filling for weeks with crackers, sugar, powdered soft
drinks, cigarettes and powdered milk. They are the result of the
unselfish efforts of the families who deprive themselves of these foods
to bring them to the prisoners.
One woman cries because the guard won't let her bring in the ripe
mangoes she brought for her son. People hang along the fence around the
entrance without any protection, all those not allowed to enter. There
is a bag with a mobile phone, a young woman's wallet, some deodorant
that the official says could be made into moonshine within those walls.
Me, they search the magazines I carry, give a pull on the zipper of my
jacket, and run their fingers through my hair. Ahead of me there is
someone trying to bring in a cake for a birthday that surely happened
months ago. A young man grips his pants because they won't allow his
belt inside. It would appear we are plunging into hell and -- in some
ways -- it's true.
The place where we spend the visit smells of sweat, sweat and enclosure.
The two Italian prisoners in front of me desperately put words one after
the other. They have been arrested for the murder of a minor in Bayamo,
but assure me that they hadn't been on the Island on the days of the
crime. They've spent more than a year in prison without trial and I try
to reconstruct, journalistically, the course of the case. One of them,
Simone Pini, talks to me about police irregularities and and I agree to
investigate. "I can't do much," I tell him, "nor do I have access to the
investigation record, but I will find out." I haven't finished my
sentence when a guard shouts my name through the bars of the room. And
leads me to the other side of Combinado del Este. To the immaculate,
air-conditioned and wood-paneled office where the chief sits, located in
a different part of the same horror. Meanwhile, a lieutenant colonel
warns me that they will never ever let me enter this prison again. When
I try to leave, I note that the door has a lock with four combinations.
"So much fear..." I think to myself. They escort me to the exit and I
see a line of family members for the next visit that starts at noon.
They carry sacks scrawled with names, and someone groans because they
won't let him bring in a present. I discover in this moment that
something sad has established itself in me, like the weight of the bars
which, since then, I carry everywhere.