Appalling Treatment of Five Jailed Cubans
By Alicia Jrapko
Ms. Jrapko is a member of the National Committee to Free the Five Cubans.
For millions of Cubans, the living conditions of the Five Cuban Political Prisoners being held in U.S. prisons is one of their greatest preoccupations. These five Cubans, who among other things were accused of espionage, face sentences from 15 years to double life.
Since the time they were sentenced in December 2001, the Five have been scattered between different federal prisons around the country. It was obvious that the U.S. government attempted to separate them with the intention of breaking the strength and morale that the five had shown all throughout their trial and sentencing.
The conditions in the federal prison system varies from one to the other and the severity of the conditions depend on several factors including the political climate of the state as well as the level of security of the unit a prisoner is in. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, who faces the most severe sentence of two life sentences plus 80 months, is in Lompoc federal prison in California. Lompoc is called The New Rock because it is the prison that replaced the infamous Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay. Prisoners who have had some type of disciplinary problem in other prisons are often sent to Lompoc and if after 18 months their behavior improves, they are assigned to federal prisons that are supposedly less severe.
One corporation operates all prison production
Like all the other prisoners at Lompoc, Gerardos day starts at 5:50AM. At that time, the guards automatically open the bars of all the cells and the prisoners can go to the common areas of their unit. Between 6:15 and 6:30 in the morning, they are called for breakfast. After breakfast the prisoners return to their cells or to the common areas and around 7:45 they are called to go to work. The U. S. prison industrial complex, which continues to grow, is now the second largest employer in the country and is responsible for the elimination of thousands of jobs on the outside, many of which had been jobs covered by union contracts.
The corporation of federal prisons generates exorbitant profits from cheap prison labor. Each prisoner makes between 23 cents to $1.15 per hour; in Gerardos case he makes approximately 50 cents per hour. In all federal prisons all prisoners have to work. The corporation that operates all prison productions is called Unicor. In Lompoc there are three factories, one cable-joiner factory, a print factory and a sign factory. The three factories are located inside the prison walls and are a more desirable place to work because the work tends to be less menial. Although the wages are very low, for many prisoners it is their only source of income. If they cannot get work in the factories, they are assigned to other jobs such as general cleaning, cooking, services, etc.
Gerardo first started to work in the cable factory, but after a month, he was transferred to a job in the sign factory, which he feels is a little bit more interesting. In the sign factory prisoners make everything from small stickers to big signs for the freeway. The clients of the factory are all government agencies and institutions. For example, the Forest Service orders posters with messages such as forest fire prevention. Any sign in the National Parks was most likely produced in Lompoc.
As in any other work place, the prison bosses quickly identify the workers who are more skilled to be assigned to specific jobs. Gerardo was assigned to a job of high responsibility not because his bosses were concerned with Gerardos well being or because they were interested in his progress but because they found out that he brought with him a high level of education and knowledge that could be utilized to further maximize profits. It is not surprising, because Gerardo, like the four other Cuban political prisoners, was educated in Cuba, where every one has access to free education from kindergarten to graduate schoolan educational system that the UN has characterized as the best in Latin America.
Gerardo works for the most part on a computer where the entire sign database for the factory is stored. His responsibilities include input of all orders, keeping records, redirecting orders, passing them to production, closing orders that are sent to clients, making sales reports and order status, and also he responds to any requests of data. At 4 pm Gerardo is back from work when the prison guards close all the cells and count the prisoners. Between 4:30 pm and 4:45 pm they open the cells and at 5:00 pm there is a movement for activities, meaning that they can go into the yard, to the library or to church after passing through a series of metal detectors. Around 5:30 pm they are called to the dining area and after supper the prisoners can either go back to their cells or they can go directly to the yard.
All movement of prisoners is under close surveillance and takes place at designated times after being announced on loud speakers. At 10 pm all the cells are closed until the next morning. The weekends provide some break from the routine and it is then that Gerardo tries to get some time in the yard for exercise and some sun. Sunday means the possibility of a phone call to Cuba. In the last two months, Gerardo has been by himself in his cell because his celly (cell mate) was sent to another prison.
Lompoc is a very old prison and the cells are very small. Thus, having it to himself is a great advantage for him. It not only provides him a little more comfort but he can also decorate the cell to his own taste. He has two bulletin boards in his cell that he was able to acquire with a lot of perseverance on his part. The boards, he explains, have become a collage of photos of Fidel, Che, Mandela, images of the Cuban people in the open tribunals, marches calling for their freedom, and pictures that were sent to him by Cuban students as well as photos of demonstrations of solidarity groups from around the world.
In Cuba, Gerardo is a well known cartoonist, whose work will soon appear in a new book, so besides his task of keeping up his correspondence he spends as much time as he can creating new caricatures that reflect his political point of view but also exposes his undaunted sense of humor.
Gerardos cell lacks a chair or a little table to write on, and although he is used to writing and drawing standing up against the closet, his greatest complaint is not this obstacle but the lack of time he has to write and draw. Due to the fact that the case of the Five Cubans is gaining international recognition Gerardo is receiving between 5 to 10 letters per day from all over the world. He wishes to express his gratitude to all the support and good wishes he receives daily, and at the same time he wants to apologize for not having enough time to respond in a timely way to all the letters. For him, the solidarity letters are a great source of encouragement. All of this mail has given him a sense of pride to know that so many peace and justice-loving people support the case of the Cuban Five and their defense of Cuba against the terrorism that emanates out of Miami.
In Lompoc prison there are 20 Cubans and in Gerardos unit there are 6 including him. All of the others are Marielitos, who left Cuba illegally in the 1980s; and although many of them have completed their sentences they are being retained by Immigration indefinitely, victimized by the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
This particularly cruel aspect of the 43-year-old blockade of Cuba is the absence of any extradition treaty between the two countries keeping these Cubans in prison in legal limbo. This situation plays itself out in many state and federal prisons throughout the U.S. where thousands of Cubans are imprisoned for undefined periods of time. Many of them have been in prison for ten, fifteen and even twenty years without charges. Many of the Cubans who are in prison with Gerardo have no contact with their families and in a show of solidarity Gerardo has helped some of them to find their families in Cuba. Due to this effort Gerardo has become known in the prison and even some American prisoners have asked him to help them find their lost relatives.
Many Cubans, who are in prison with Gerardo, have told him that leaving Cuba was the biggest mistake they ever made. Many of them consider themselves revolutionaries and have asked Gerardo to have a photo taken with them to send to their families in Cuba. Others share with him letters they have received from their Cuban families where they have asked them to look out for Gerardo and to show solidarity to him.
But Gerardos case like the case of the other Cuban patriots is well known by other prisoners. Some of them have read their Court closing statements and had asked Gerardo for a book with his signature. Several African American prisoners ask Gerardo regularly for materials that he receives in English to read them. Many of them have closely followed the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Others have expressed to Gerardo their admiration for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
It is clear that Gerardo has been able to remain strong behind the walls of Lompoc. Sometimes late at night, on a small radio he has been able to tune in Radio Havana Cuba in English and one night he was even able to pick up the Cuban National Anthem. Contrary to other prisoners in the United States, Gerardo, Ramón, René, Fernando, and Antonio, are the only political prisoners here who have the unconditional support of their entire country. The Five inside U.S. prisons and the great majority of the Cuban people in Cuba fight the same battle; their battle for self-determination and the right to defend the sovereignty of Cuba against all types of aggressions. Sooner or later they will return to their homeland.
For more information about the prisoners and their prison addresses, visit: http://www.freethefive.org