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Feeding a prisoner: a heavy burden for thousands of Cuban families

Failure to do so means condemning a loved one to depending on the paltry and often inedible rations at the island's prisons.

La Habana
Relatives of prisoners outside the Vivac, in Havana.
Relatives of prisoners outside the Vivac, in Havana. Gatopardo

Getting food and other essentials to a prisoner drains the finances of thousands of families in a dollarized economy like Cuba's. The alternative, not doing so, entails condemning a loved one to depend on the paltry and generally inedible rations at the island's prisons.

How much money is needed to subir la jaba; that is, ensure improved meals for a prisoner? DIARIO DE CUBA asked several families, and our conclusion is that they must spend more than twice the minimum monthly wage (2,100) pesos to help their relatives.

"The situation in the country hits those Cubans who have relatives in prison harder, regardless of their crime and punishment. Prices also went up in there, and those who bear the brunt of it are the prisoners whose families don't have the resources to send them better food, or pay for it," said América Martínez, a president of the municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, who has been bearing the cost of better food for her eldest child for more than five years.

"First, people should know that the prisoners are poorly fed, because what they serve them shouldn't be called food for people. Anyone who questions this has never walked into a prison or visited one. Hence the importance of the jaba for prisoners, as it allows them to serve their time without suffering ulcers or gastritis," she added.

"But the hardship comes when a family that lives off its salary has a member in jail. Prisoners are also deprived of their right to subsidized groceries, such that, in Cuba, not only those who commit crimes, but also their families are punished," noted Martínez, referring to the fact that prisoners are deprived of access to this government benefit, on the pretext that they receive what they need in prison. She said that her expenses to get food to her son range from "between 4,000 and 5,000 pesos, including transportation."

Other Havana citizens consulted reported that a set of food and basic products that last the prisoner between 30 and 45 days, depending on the internal policies of each prison, and even the moods of the military personnel that run them, can range up to 6,000 pesos. The interviewees stated that very few families can afford this, so the prisoners are obliged to ration what they receive to alleviate the burden of their loved ones on the outside.

All Cubans staying for more than three months in any prison, hospital or nursing home are deprived of their right to a ration book, and, therefore, of all the "released but controlled products" that can only be purchased by presenting said document.

In 2020, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition observers and platforms noted that the Interior Ministry’s National Directorate of Prisons had suspended family visits and limited the food that inmates could receive in the future. This is a restrictive measure that, according to several interviewees, is still in force in many prisons in the country.

"Turning a blind eye"

Along with cigarettes, medicines have also become a type of currency among inmates at Cuban prisons.

A young man in his thirties, after more than five years as a prison guard, reported, on condition of anonymity, that "turning a blind eye" to transactions between inmates is normal and "even necessary" as long as they do not provoke tensions beyond the normal altercations at any prison. He acknowledged that "the coronavirus worsened the situation for prisoners" and said he has "seen inmates pay, for a single paracetamol, up to four boxes of Criollos (cigarettes). If there aren’t enough medicines on the street, how can anyone believe that there will be in a prison? "

"Yes, a box of Criollos now costs 250 pesos. So, just imagine how much the vice can cost an inmate whose family can't afford to buy him 30 boxes, each worth 100 pesos on the black market. But, in addition to those 30, prisoners need others to receive services who prices have also doubled or tripled. What used to cost a prisoner two or three boxes of Criollos now costs him five or seven," stated this guard, pointing out that "everything, absolutely everything that prisoners do, we know about."

"The rule says the prisoner has to feel like a prisoner, but we can't afford to strangle them too much, because you're constantly risking a revolt that you couldn't control if it got serious," he said. He confirmed that antibiotics and painkillers are among the most sought-after medications; but, they are less expensive than those that only psychiatrists can prescribe.

The "hard currency" of prison

Cookies, toast, garlic oil and seasonings, sugar, syrups for beverages, dehydrated milk, mayonnaise, instant coffee, jams and other preserves are some of the foods that can be found in penitentiaries, depending on how the prison is and the inmate's classification. Under no circumstances is anything canned or sealed allowed, not even cigarettes.

During the period between 2016 and 2019 at women's prisons in Havana nearly all services were paid for with Criollo cigarettes, which, it can be said, are the currency par excellence in Cuban prisons. However, during that period the supply in the networks of state establishments was constant, quite the opposite of the situation today, when the sale of that merchandise is rationed all across the island, said Aurora Oliva, a Mathematics graduate who noted that "boxes of cigarettes didn't cost what they do today."

"I remember some of the services that were paid for, mostly to avoid certain obligations imposed on inmates in prison: cleaning it, washing sheets and jeans, for two packs. Cleanings, whether in the common area, hallway or bathrooms, also cost two packs per area. If you smoked better brands of cigarettes the exchange rate was: each Hollywood cigarette was traded at six Criollos, and each H. Upman or Popular cigarette was worth five Creoles. Then there are the sales of clothing, manicures and hairdressing services. Depending on their quality, they cost between two and three packs. Panties for three packs, bras for five packs. Fabric dolls for children cost five packs and up, " Oliva said, pointing out that "each pack of Criollos at that time cost at most ten pesos, and currently ranges from 80 to 100, which drives up the food prices to unthinkable figures for Cubans who depend on their salaries and nothing else. "

Everything on the island is strictly rationed: food, medicine, personal hygiene and cigarettes. The only option to escape rationing is through access to foreign currency, whether obtained by family remittances or by illegal exchanges, at astronomical prices, since the regime does not sell any to Cubans.

Two thirds of Cubans, however, do not receive family remittances; that is, more than seven and a half million Cubans are obliged to buy dollars and euros on the black market, where exchange rates exceed 105 and 120 pesos, respectively. Otherwise, they have to endure lines that extend for days to buy chicken, mincemeat and sausages, the only foods with which establishments in Cuban pesos are regularly supplied.
Maribel Cancio, an Agronomy graduate and a resident of Guanabacoa, has a brother incarcerated in a prison located in the center of the country, where he was transferred "in retaliation for refusing to blow the whistle on two fellow prisoners who were dealing drugs."

"There is no reasonable way, absolutely none, to deny that the punishment was not for my brother, but for his relatives, including the children. It is impossible for, me, in addition to the rations, to afford a trip to the middle of the country, along with my nephew. In fact, many times, more than half, I've had to send it without the certainty that everything it contained was actually delivered," said Cancio, who challenged the prison authorities to answer thorny questions.

"Why don't they talk about the fact that the prisoners' uniforms are also part of the prison rackets? About how prisoners can hoard the uniforms and shoes in what is part of a business between the prisoners? How do all the medications suddenly appear if you have the necessary boxes of Criollos, or cash?"

The food she sends her brother cost her up to double her monthly salary (3,400 pesos), Cancio said. "And we don't have relatives abroad who can help us with remittances."

"Even toiletries cost an arm and a leg on the black market. The prison guards themselves keep them apprised of the prices, so that they raise the costs on the prison's illicit market. Of course, the entire chain of command at a prison takes their cuts, both for this type of information and for looking the other way," she concluded.

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