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When I Was Inmate No. 60

Three days cooped up with five dangerous criminals: a 'lesson' for engaging in independent journalism.


In the State Security operations unit known as Pedernales, in Holguín, I was renamed. I was detained there fore three days in November 2017, for being independent journalist. There they call me "number 60".

Using numbers, in addition to facilitating the jailers' work, seeks to alienate the human being, who feels removed from his group, and his comfort zone.

After arriving at Pedernales I spent more than an hour alone in an office. An officer brought me a lunch so revolting that I could barely stomach it. He handed me a grey uniform, the same shade as Cuban coffins, and led me to the cell area.

A grate separates them from the administrative section. It faces onto a wide corridor that is about 20 meters long, with cells on each side. An extractor fan, on day and night, produces a deafening noise that torments the inmates.

The officer opened a double-iron door and ordered me to enter. It took more than a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light and I could see inside.

It was a room of nothing but concrete, six meters long by three wide (18m2), for six inmates. There were three bunk beds, stuck together, and also made of concrete. And, in a corner, a foul hole for one's physiological needs, without any privacy.

Above that hole, in the wall, there was a small opening, and the vestige of a tube, from which, three times a day, for 15 minutes, water flowed. My cellmates had placed an empty tube of toothpaste so that the water would gush away from the wall and all six of us could wash ourselves. And during that brief time we had to fill bottles, both to drink, and to evacuate the urine and feces.

When I entered, the other prisoners stared at me in silence. Discreetly, I also scrutinized them and tried to devise the best strategy to deal with them. Five men hardened by criminal and prison life, covered in primitive tattoos, of the kind made in prison with pieces of melted plastic. They all looked a decade older than they actually were.

One was suspected of having stabbed a man and throwing acid down a woman's throat; another, of multiple armed robberies; two, of larceny and killing older cattle; and the last, of being an accomplice to the abandonment of someone killed in an accident. One had been on a hunger strike for three days, and another was preparing a knife, to cut his wrists with, in the hope of being transferred to the hospital. The objective was to be able to communicate with family and lawyers, and learn about their cases, because there we were all incomunicado.

First they looked at me with suspicion. Then they were very nice, especially when they found I was there for writing on the Internet and being an independent journalist. They immediately uttered expletives about the Government and the MININT, and mentioned Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in a hunger strike in February of 2010.

Two of them had met him in jail, they said. They warned me that if I was convicted I could be beaten up by inmates who agree to do that dirty work for simple but important perks in prison, like more cigarettes, or family visits.

They told me about a former Holguin prisoner nicknamed "El Pombo", who purportedly beat Zapata Tamayo in exchange for such things. It is difficult to confirm whether that story is true. El Pombo, my cellmates told me, died of AIDS.

They also told me many anecdotes, urging me to publish them if I managed to get out. Despite our differences, there was empathy. We chatted a lot, to kill the endless hours, distracting ourselves from the constant sweating, due to the lack of ventilation, and the relentless mosquitoes.

They knew that I was a "political prisoner" because of the number assigned to me, as theirs were higher, close to 500. I was only a 60. According to their explanation, that meant that until November 10, 2017, 60 inmates had passed through the facility for political reasons.

I quickly got used to those unsanitary conditions. By the time I was released I was able to drink the bottled water from the crusty and smelly bottles, which reeked of tobacco. The prisoners smoke incessantly, both cigarettes and cigars, filling the air with smoke, which hangs heavy due to the lack of ventilation. And to light them they keep a wick burning and smoking, which makes the air even worse. For them smoking is a question of life or death, and they even hurt themselves if they have nothing to smoke.

When I arrived I started sneezing, because I am allergic, but I soon got used to it. Worse were the moments when someone had to defecate so close by, in the horrendous corner of that hermetic cell. I never complained to my captors, nor did I ask for anything, nor did I show any weakness. I remained still, in my corner, enduring the humiliation. I was only truly distressed by thoughts of concern for my family, my mother's health, my children and my wife.

I quickly staved them off thinking about Marti, who at just 16 years of age suffered a prison that was much worse, with shackles, and hard labor. "Leonor's suffering must have been greater than my mother's. He was a child and I am a grown man," I said to myself. Repeating those ideas was like a balm to avoid weakness.

Being in a place like that makes you feel like you will never be able to leave. There you feel like the law does not exist. At the end of the 72 hours of confinement I was taken to the same office where everything began. Officer Parra, who I believe held the rank of a major, gave me a "political talk":

"You don't understand the historical juncture we are at"; "the enemy is using you"; "your journalistic work is being paid with money from the Empire, and that makes you a mercenary"; "you're being stubborn"; "this environment, surrounded by dangerous prisoners, is not for you, but we will have to imprison you and try you for any common crime if you continue to write like that"; "the Revolution has the right to defend itself, and you are attacking the Revolution", were some of the phrases I heard.

I found out from Officer Parra that my wife and father had just left, without being allowed to see me. Worse still, they left devastated, because they had been told that I would be imprisoned indefinitely. Nevertheless, I was released right then, at 6:00 in the afternoon. I arrived at my house, in Mayari, just minutes after them, a bit after 10:00 at night, amidst tears of joy. Everything indicates that the idea was to teach me a "lesson", as they themselves told me several times.

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