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Prison in Cuba: a tough place to be a mother

Inmates' pregnancies are fraught with problems impacting not only those who opt to give birth in prisons, but also those who are separated from their children by their incarceration.

Cuban political Prisoners with children.
Cuban political Prisoners with children. Cuban Prisons Documentation Center

Lisdany Rodríguez Isaac is 25 years old, but she has wanted to be a mother for a long time - longer than she has been in prison for demonstrating against the Cuban Government in July 2021. For those hours of freedom in Placetas (Villa Clara) the Communist Party's regime is making her and her sister Lisdiany pay with eight years of incarceration, and all the hardships and mistreatment that they entail.

Despite her imprisonment, however, Lisdany never resigned herself to not having a child, and, in the end, she became pregnant.

Cuban prisons are no place to be a mother. In fact, they are no place for anyone to live with dignity. Lisdany will not interrupt her pregnancy, however, according to her mother, Barbara Isaac Rojas. The pressure exerted by State Security agents at the Guamajal women's prison in Santa Clara, condemned by both her mother and the NGO Prisoners Defenders, failed to persuade her to get an abortion.

"They want my daughter to get an abortion, but she refuses to, because she's always wanted to have a baby. I can't imagine the moment when it happened, but they [Lisdany and her husband, also an inmate] want to have it," Isaac Rojas told Infobae.

According to the mother of the political prisoner, when Lisdany presented symptoms, "she had an ultrasound, which was positive." However, "the doctor let her know, and set about preparing the tests for Lisdiany to have it removed  [abort]. My daughter refused, but State Security and prison staff are coercing her to terminate the pregnancy," Bárbara Isaac told El Debate.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states that forced abortion constitutes a violation of sexual and reproductive rights.

The maternity of Cuban prisoners, far from being a right duly protected by guarantees and conditions, is fraught with several problems impacting not only those who decide to give birth in prisons, but also those who are separated from their children by their incarceration. Despite this, during the last United National Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to which the Cuban State was subjected in November 2023, Interior Ministry (MININT) official Lieutenant Colonel Luis Emilio Cadaval claimed that "Cuba complies with the Bangkok Rules" for "the treatment of prisoners and their children." 

The UN document recommends opting for alternative sentences in order to avoid incarcerating pregnant women; prohibits severed communications with their family members and those responsible for their defense; and criticizes confinement in places far from inmates' homes, and the denial of medical care with a gender focus, among other conditions

Several violence victims of obstetric and witnesses of abuse in the Cuban penitentiary system dispute the MININT officer's claim in testimonies obtained by the Cuban Prisons Documentation Center and reports from the independent press.

Maternity behind bars

Lisdany Rodríguez is not the only case of a Cuban woman whose pregnancy has been affected by a political prison sentence. Melkis Faure Echavarría, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was arrested and beaten while pregnant on August 6, 2016, during a public and peaceful demonstration in Old Havana. She had a miscarriage a few weeks later, while isolated at the Vivac Detention Center.

Then, in 2017, at the Western Women's Prison (Prisión de Mujeres de Occidente, Havana), aka El Guatao, she became pregnant again during a visit by her husband, Freddie Nomihele Michel. Some three months later she suffered another miscarriage, due to poor medical care while isolated in solitary confinement, according to her partner.

Melkis Faure was given enalapril, a medication contraindicated for pregnant women, Martí Noticias then reported.

"Poor medical care, delayed follow-up, and a lack of tests had harmful results for the activist," said Race and Equality, a U.S.-based nonprofit group.

The  Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' (IACHR) "Principles and Good Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas" establishes that these "women and girls should have the right to access specialized medical care corresponding to their physical and biological characteristics and adequately responding to their reproductive health needs."

"In particular, they must have gynecological and pediatric medical care, before, during and after childbirth, which should not be administered within penitentiary facilities, but rather at hospitals or establishments intended for this purpose," it adds.

Inmate Dayana de la Caridad González Lanz did not enjoy these rights in El Guatao. In September of 2023 the human rights defender and anti-racist activist Juan Antonio Madrazo reported that González Lanz had her reproductive organs removed in an emergency operation. The young woman of African descent had been suffering from fever and severe abdominal pain for more than ten days, and asked to be taken to a doctor. When they did, it was too late, and they carried out the drastic intervention, without notifying her relatives.

In Cuba, shortages of food and medicine, a lack of adequate medical care, and direct mistreatment are some of the situations suffered by pregnant women in prison.

Nancy Rodríguez, held at two penitentiaries in Havana and Camagüey between 2003 and 2007, told the Cuban Prisons Documentation Center that when she became pregnant personal care by a gynecologist was "sporadic." She received visits "every three months or so." When Nancy had a medical appointment outside the prison unit, or to get tests, she was not taken in an ambulance, but rather in a kind of cage/cart.

She remembers her space in the maternity area at the "Granja 5" prison in Camagüey: a small room of some 4 x 4 meters with two beds, two cribs and a tiny bathroom next to the door. There she received "the same food as all the other inmates," until she complained and they began to give her "a little protein: a boiled egg, some chicken."

"Until I protested, it was the same food for everyone. Our relatives were the ones who brought us bags on visits, supplementing our diets," says Nancy.

In its report "A Gender Approach to Women Deprived of their Liberty" the Inter-American Court states that "Inadequate amounts of food, or food of poor nutritional value, can result in starvation and malnutrition for pregnant or breastfeeding women more frequently than among the general population of women deprived of their liberty, even affecting the ability of mothers to breastfeed."

On some occasions Nancy suffered "hostile" treatment from her jailers. "While I was with my newborn child there was a guard who came in and rattled the bars in the nursing area. I was in the room next to those bars. I asked him not to do so, because it startled my baby and woke him up. He just ignored me."

This was not the only hardship she suffered while taking care of her son. The baby almost died of pneumonia, which he contracted in the dank cell, causing him to cough and almost suffocate overnight. At that point Nancy had been eligible for probation for a year, but she was not released until shortly after the dangerous incident.

Yanay Solaya Baruh, a former political prisoner arrested for participating in the July 2021 (11-J) protests, told us about the case of a woman at El Guatao, a friend who is pregnant and was furloughed because the dire conditions at the prison placed her life at risk.

"Imagine. They [the prison officials] did not even have a diet [for her]. They gave everyone the same food, and she began to have pressure problems, she was about to die, it seems, because of the food [...] and when her pressure rose there was no medicine or food, or any way to deal with it, or transport to her to her appointments, no gas... Nothing!"

The situation is not very different for those who have already given birth and their children. According to Yanay Solaya, "there is no food for those children."

She recalls that one of her cellmates "worked in the kitchen, in the Maternity ward, and came back every day crying, because she said that they themselves had to skimp on the rice, anything, because there was nothing to give those children [...] sometimes there wasn't even milk to give them, or it never reached them, because they [the guards] are the first thieves, the warden ... who left the kitchen loaded."

The accounts gathered by the Cuban Prison Documentation Center coincide with others published by the independent press. For example, Kenia León, a former inmate at the San Miguel de Paradas prison in Santiago de Cuba told DIARIO DE CUBA  in 2021 that pregnant women there were not separated from the rest of the prisoners.

"I remember one named Dayana. She went four days without bathing, overcome by depression. The 're-educator' hit her on the leg and forced her to stand up, yelling at her 'you have to bathe, you pig, nobody should be forced to endure your stench here, look at those dirty clothes!' The girl was depressed for many more days after that humiliation."

León also reported the lack of any special diets for pregnant women. According to the interviewee, "they ate the same things as all the others. They just gave them a little more rice. Milk, never..."

Likewise, a few days after her release from the Granja 5 prison in Camaguey, Ienelis Delgado, an activist known as "Mambisa Agramontina," reported that she was not provided with any type of sexual or reproductive health care there. She explains that in the separate room, known as the "maternity home," pregnant inmates do enjoy slightly better conditions: a telephone, a refrigerator... But the food they are given is just as paltry and poorly prepared as that of the rest of the prisoners.

In 2013 the female prison population in Cuba came to about 4,000 inmates, official sources told state and foreign press during a supervised visit to several prisons. In general, however, the regime does not publish updated information on the prison population in Cuba, or allow scrutiny of it by independent organizations.

A young woman who was imprisoned for the events of 11-J, and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, explained that at El Guatao she only received medical attention months after discovering her pregnancy, and only after an act of disobedience.

"It was all because of my own rebellion, because I escaped through a half-open fence. I was very bad off, with severe symptoms. Otherwise, they wouldn't have taken me [to the doctor]," she told  the Center. In addition, at the prison "there was a lot of trafficking in the medications, something was almost always missing", and "if I rejected a drug they didn't change it."

The young woman was not immediately transferred anywhere more appropriate for her condition, nor did the prison authorities respond to her request to terminate her pregnancy. "I could barely eat anything in there, and my family was unable to get me the food I needed," she said.

At "the little hospital" to which she was taken the care was "very bad," and at night other prisoners acting as nurses were in charge. She herself had to assist in two deliveries "because there were no ambulances, and by the time they showed up the children had already been born."

Cuban law only allows mothers to remain with their child in prison until they are one year old. Then they are separated and the child is sent with a relative who can take care of him or her, or to a state institution known as a "Casa de la Patria" until the mother is released.

Another of IACHR’S principles states that "when mothers or fathers deprived of liberty are allowed to be with their young children inside detention centers, the necessary measures must be taken to organize child care featuring qualified personnel and appropriate educational, pediatric and nutritional services, in order to guarantee protection of the children's best interests."

Insurmountable distances

It is not only inside prisons that pregnant political prisoners suffer. Lizandra Góngora, a mother of five, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and is currently confined in a prison on the Isla de la Juventud (island), separated from her family and her place of residence.

According to information published by Contexto Cubano, Lizandra expressed her wish to inoculate herself with HIV to get the authorities to transfer her to a prison that her children and her husband could more easily access. That decision stemmed from her unsuccessful attempts, for months, to get the Cuban State to grant her a change of penitentiary. Since April 2023 the political prisoner has been at Los Colonos prison, on the Isla de la Juventud, without her family, which resides in Güira de Melena, Artemisa, being informed of the change in advance

According to the IACHR, "transfers of persons deprived of liberty must be authorized and supervised by competent authorities, who are to respect, in all circumstances, inmates' dignity and fundamental rights, and will take into account the need for persons to be deprived of liberty in places near or close to their families, their communities, their counsel or legal representative, and the court of justice or other State body that knows their case.

In addition, transfers "must not be carried out with the intention of punishing, repressing or discriminating against persons deprived of liberty, their relatives or representatives; nor may they be carried out under conditions that cause them physical or mental suffering, or in a way that is humiliating or favors their public exhibition."

Góngora’s case demonstrates how the Cuban regime flouts international humanitarian law. At the Los Colonos prison, at various times she has been prevented from receiving family visits, and food that some friends brought her. They also restricted her phone calls, which were subject to strict surveillance by prison officials, and she was denied the specialized medical care of a psychiatrist.

In July of 2023 her husband, Ángel Delgado, reported that Lizandra Góngora was threatened by another inmate with a knife. The threats continued in subsequent months, without the prison authorities taking effective measures to protect her, despite the fact that the dissident informed them that she feared for her life in prison.

Góngora has condemned other repressive actions against her carried out or instigated by State Security and other MININT officials. These incidents include threats to transfer her to more remote prisons, restrictions on her conjugal visits, attacks by officers and other inmates who cooperate with the authorities, harassment and isolation from the rest of the prison population, and the theft of her medicines.

The systematic repression and separation from her children imposed by the State have prompted Lizandra Góngora to express concern about "the consequences of what may happen to me" if her transfer to a prison in Havana is not authorized.

A similar case is that of Aymara Nieto, a Lady in White (Dama de Blanco) transferred in 2020 to a prison in the province of Las Tunas, almost  435 miles from her family in Havana, after being falsely accused of instigating a riot at El Guatao.

"What has affected me the most is being separated from family, and they're suffering without you being able to solve anything, because it's not in your hands [the solution],as, in the end, before anything else, I'm a mother," she told Martí Noticias in October 2023, after obtaining her first regulated leave after five years in prison.

Melkis Faure, who had already suffered two miscarriages while in state custody, spent a year and two months (between 2020 and 2021) without being allowed to see her children, with the restrictions imposed to stop the Covid-19 pandemic cited as justification.

This separation, which, in the case of political prisoners, can involve great distances, is what Lázara Karenia González wants to avoid at all costs. For years her relatives have carried out an intense campaign on social networks to prevent her imprisonment. The 11-J protester faces the possibility of returning to a cell, as the Municipal Court of Cárdenas (Matanzas) rejected a request for parole filed on January 3 by her lawyer, Martí Noticias reported.

For most of her pregnancy, and the first year of her child's life, Lázara Karenia was at home caring for her baby. Now the authorities are demanding that she return to prison to finish serving a sentence of three years and six months of internment including correctional work, handed down in March 2022.

Lisdany's dream, endangered

The precarious living conditions in Cuban prisons affect their entire populations. In the case of pregnant women, however, the consequences are particularly serious.

Barbara Isaac told us that on February 12 she visited her daughters and learned that Lisdany is "feeling sick, vomiting." She explained that "she has a bad stomach, and, without adequate food, feels worse."

In an interview with El Espectador, the political prisoners' mother stated that Lisdany was transferred to a cell with poor ventilation, allegedly in retaliation for not yielding to pressure to have an abortion. In her new location the young woman is suffering in a flu-like state. According to Barbara Isaac, they had managed to get her to attend an appointment for a prenatal check-up, but a car was never authorized to transport her.

Recently, the Cuban Prison Documentation Center released a statement expressing its concern about the cases of Lizandra Góngora and Lisdany Rodríguez, and called on the State to release the political prisoners immediately.

The organization added: "Until the well-deserved release of all political prisoners, we urge the authorities to respect the rights of these women and to refrain from actions that worsen their situation in prisons, where they survive amid precarious health and nutritional conditions that increase the suffering of those deprived of their liberty."

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