Cuba's many prisons may hold 100,000
If accurate, the figure would give the country the highest number of inmates per capita, even ahead of the United States. An estimated 300 are political prisoners.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
Cuba's jailing of 75 dissidents six months ago has focused fresh attention on one of the largest per-capita prison systems in the world, with an estimated 100,000 or so inmates in about 200 prisons and labor camps spread around an island slightly smaller than Pennsylvania.
Letters smuggled out by a handful of the imprisoned dissidents describe tight, filthy quarters infested with rodents and bugs; food too disgusting to eat; limited access to medical care; and physical and mental abuse.
But the estimated 300 political prisoners in Cuba make up only a fraction of what may be the world's most extensive per-capita prison gulag -- even larger than the U.S. penitentiary system, which tops the list kept by the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
Cuba today has an estimated 100,000 inmates in about 200 prisons and correctional labor camps, including 80 maximum and lesser security penitentiaries, according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent organization in Havana. Officials at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said they have no independent knowledge of the number of prisoners but do not dispute the 100,000 figure. A 1995 U.N. report on Cuba's human rights situation in Cuba estimated there were ``between 100,000 and 200,000 prisoners in all categories.''
If accurate, the figure of 100,000 inmates in an island of nearly 11.3 million people would give Cuba 888 inmates per 100,000 people, far ahead of the United States, which, according to the Prison Studies center's latest report, has 701 inmates per 100,000.
The center, considered one of the world's leading authorities on prison systems, uses a 1997 estimate for Cuba of 33,000 prisoners, or 297 prisoners per 100,000 people, putting it in 32nd place on the center's list of 100 nations. Center officials said they obtained the estimate from an academic in Norway and had not updated it since then.
HARD TO ASSESS
Cuba's prison population is difficult to assess because the Cuban government does not officially report figures and does not allow independent human rights monitors to visit prisons. The last foreign visit to Cuba's prison system was in 1989 by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Then the inmate population was about 40,000, said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas Program for Human Rights Watch.
Cuban officials could not be reached for comment.
But Vladimiro Roca, a human rights activist who served nearly five years in prison, said it's no surprise that Cuba's prison population is so high.
''Here, people get thrown in prison for anything,'' Roca said in a telephone interview from Havana, adding that breaking the law is often a matter of survival in a country where the government's monthly food rations last less than two weeks and the average wage is about $10 per month. ''If you kill a cow to feed your family, you go to jail,'' Roca said. ``That's part of the government's method to maintain control over the population.''
Owners of private restaurants known as paladares can land in jail if they sell lobsters -- officially reserved for tourist hotels and government-owned restaurants. So can those who exhibit behavior deemed by authorities as ''dangerous'' or who sell their homes or cars without government approval.
Beyond the high rate of prisoners, harsh conditions, at least as described by inmates, also have raised concern among international organizations, especially because there have been no outside inspections since the Red Cross' 1989 visit.
Annick Bouvier, who covers Latin America for the Geneva-based organization, said the visits stopped because ''our modalities were not accepted by detaining authorities.'' She declined to provide details but said the organization generally seeks complete access and the ability to speak privately with prisoners.
Mariner of Human Rights Watch said it is difficult to assess whether Cuba's prison system is worse than elsewhere in the region ``because prison conditions in Latin America tend to be generally very poor.''
''But there are aspects of Cuban prisons that are different and extremely worrisome,'' she added.
A 1999 Human Rights Watch report titled Cuba's Repressive Machinery said the island ``confines its sizable prison population under substandard and unhealthy conditions, where prisoners face physical and sexual abuse.
''Most prisoners suffer malnourishment from an insufficient prison diet and languish in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some endure physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or [spend] long periods in isolation cells,'' the report said. ``The inhumane conditions and the punitive measures taken against prisoners have been, in several instances, so cruel as to rise to the level of torture.''
Similar concerns were raised in the State Department's annual Human Rights Practices report released in March. ''Prison conditions continued to be harsh and life threatening,'' it said.
``The government claimed that prisoners had rights such as family visitation, adequate nutrition, pay for work, the right to request parole, and the right to petition the prison director; however, police and prison officials often denied these rights in practice, and beat, neglected, isolated, and denied medical treatment to detainees and prisoners, including those convicted of political crimes or those who persisted in expressing their views.''
Roca, jailed in a maximum security penitentiary and released last year, said such descriptions do not fully capture the horror. His first three years were spent in solitary confinement in a cell so narrow ''there was hardly space to sit down,'' he said.
''It's hard to put into words what prison conditions are like here,'' Roca said.
``You have to live it to believe it. In reality, most of the inmates that were in that prison with me should have been dead. That's how bad it was.''