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Cuba: A Humane Prison System

by Jill Soffiyah Elijah

Since the island nation of Cuba experienced its successful revolution in 1959 its prison system has been evolving. Despite accusations of harsh human rights abuses from its neighbours to the north, Cuba today maintains a prison system that is in many respects far more humane than Western propaganda would have the uninformed public believe.

My study of the Cuban prison system began in 1987 when I first visited the country to attend a conference co-sponsored by the American Association of Jurists and the Cuban Association of Jurists.

I was pleasantly surprised during the trip when the opportunity arose to visit a men's prison.

A group of conference attendees travelled by bus to the prison and when we arrived we were not searched and our belongings were not checked. We did not sign in or out. Nobody asked to check our identification.

Having visited numerous prisons in the United States, I have never entered any of them without a thorough search of my person and my belongings. Government issued photo identification is always required.

Although we were given a tour of the prison we were free to wander off and talk with the prisoners unmonitored. We walked all around the facility and were allowed to go into cells, work areas, the cafeteria, hospital, classrooms, recreation area and any other space we chose. This we were allowed to do unaccompanied. The prisoners wore street clothing.

Although one might think that this must have been a minimum- or medium-security prison, there are no such institutional classifications. Prison institutions are not characterised by security level. Rather, prisoners of varying security levels are all housed in the same facility.

The four levels of security classification for prisoners are maximum, high, moderate and minimum. The distinction in their security classification is borne out in the frequency with which they are allowed family and conjugal visits, mail, phone privileges and furlough availability.

All prisoners, regardless of security level, are afforded at least four family and conjugal visits a year. Prisoners with the lowest security classifications are afforded more frequent family and conjugal visits than higher security classified prisoners.

Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback at this very different approach. For the next 13 years I built on this experience and conducted further research on the Cuban prison system.

In 1988 I returned to Cuba to attend the International Women's Conference hosted by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Another opportunity arose to visit a prison, this time it was a women's facility.

My impressions were very similar to those I had when I visited the men's facility. In a nutshell, the Cuban system still impressed me as being more humane than what I had observed in the United States.

Prisoners in Cuba are incarcerated in the province in which they live. This is done to facilitate regular contact between prisoners and their families. This contact is seen as an integral part of the prisoner's rehabilitation.

Families are incorporated through joint counselling into the rehabilitation process. Each prison is staffed with professionals who are trained to assist the family and the prisoner plan for his or her re-entry into the community. The focus is on rehabilitation as opposed to retribution and punishment.

Prisoners or their families may request conditional liberty passes. These are similar to furloughs and are granted to allow the prisoner to tend to their own or a family member's health. The furlough time is counted as part of the sentence.

Prisoners are not obligated to work. Work is considered a right of the prisoner so that he can earn an income.

Prisoners are allowed to work in the same sort of employment as they held prior to their incarceration if it is available at the facility where they are being held. They are compensated for their labour at the same wage that free workers are compensated. They are not charged room and board, no matter how much they earn.

Similarly, they do not have to pay for their education, medical, dental or hospital care, or any other activities they experience.

Social security benefits and pensions are available to all prison labourers. In the event of a prisoner's death, their family will receive their pension. A portion of the prisoner's earnings is sent to their family.

Even if a prisoner does not work, their family will be cared for by the state.

Once a prisoner has served at least half of their sentence, they can request a conditional release if they are a first offender. A positive conduct record is the primary factor considered in granting the request for relief.

The request for conditional release is made to the sentencing tribunal. The district attorney is given an opportunity to be heard with respect to the request. All prisoners are released after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

In 1997, the availability of alternatives to incarceration was expanded to cover all defendants sentenced to up to five years' incarceration. Previously, these alternatives were only available to defendants sentenced to up to three years'.

The expansion of alternatives to incarceration for all defendants facing up to five years' incarceration covered almost 95% of Cuba's prisoners.

The recidivism rate for those prisoners released pursuant to the use of alternatives to incarceration is less than 15%. These alternatives include a form of probation, conditional release (similar to parole) and suspended sentences.

The conditional release program is very interesting. The defendant lives for 12 days in a residence located near a farm or industrial centre, where they work during those days. Then they have three days off where they can leave the residence and go home to their family. On the fourth day, the defendant returns to the work site and residence.

The defendant works side by side with non-incarcerated workers who are not informed of their status. They are paid the same wage as their co-workers and afforded the same benefits and privileges. They work the same shifts and wear civilian clothing.

Work alternatives can be revoked if the defendant fails to adhere to the rules and conditions of the program. The sentencing tribunal is informed if the defendant fails to meet the conditions and it can decide to return the defendant to prison.

The goal of the Cuban prison system is to return people to the community as productive contributors as soon as possible. Therefore, the focus is not on punishment, but rather on rehabilitation and re-education.

Abridged. Jill Soffiyah Elijah is clinical instructor of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Harvard Law School.


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