Cuban Prisons and the Rights of Those Who Work

Dmitri Prieto

Cuban and foreign press were allowed to speak with female prisoners at the Women’s Prison on the outskirts of Havana. Francisco/Cubadebate.

HAVANA TIMES — I watched a number of reports shown on Cuban television prior to the date when Cuba submitted its official report to the UN Human Rights Council. The series documenting what life is like in Cuba’s prisons was particularly interesting for me.

The news emphasized the broad range of occupations that inmates can become involved in while in prison, the work-related education options made available to them and the crafts they can learn.

In these reports, a number of the officials and prisoners interviewed referred to the possibility of working in the prison, and one of the superiors even said that the Labor Code was fully applied in these places of confinement.

I studied this Code as part of my degree program in Law, and one of the articles that made the deepest impression in me establishes that workers may freely, and without “previous authorization”, organize themselves into unions.

I would be interested in knowing whether people in prison who work also have the right to form unions.

Another official interviewed said that, even though all inmates had the right to work, not all were guaranteed a job, as there was a limited number of posts available.

I wonder, therefore, if we should be speaking of a “right” when not everyone has access to the object the said right is supposed to entitle one to.

In the reports documenting the workings of prisons and other penitentiary centers located in different parts of the country (highly professional in this sense, for they break with the “Havanocentric” bias characteristic of the news), the inmates and officials interviewed stressed that the salary earned through their work (established in accordance with criteria similar to those that govern work outside the prison) was sent to the prisoners’ families, as no money is allowed to circulate within prison walls.

A friend who works in Cuba’s penitentiary system explained to me that inmates are not allowed to carry money. This is the reason cigarettes become a kind of virtual currency used to exchange goods, services and favors.

It remains to be seen whether the issues surrounding this thorny topic will begin to be addressed more openly and transparently.

5 thoughts on “Cuban Prisons and the Rights of Those Who Work

  • Conrad Black has been writing a number of articles on the corrupt US prison system. After being a guest of a US prison for almost 4 years, (on some rather spurious charges, he maintains) he has since become an articulate critic of the system, which he describes as corrupt and fixed against anybody who is charged with a crime.

    Private prisons are a horrendous idea which provides a profit motive for keeping inmate populations high.

  • Cuba: a story of horrible prison conditions

    “The circumstances in the Cuban prisons are inhuman. They are overloaded and each prisoner has less than halve a square meter to live on. The corridors are overcrowded and a lot of prisoners are forced to sleep on the ground, because of a lack of beds. The food is scarce and has no nutritional value. Chicken is the only food that contains a bit of protein, which they only serve twice a month.

    They don’t pay any attention to the prisoners and there is practically no medical help. I was located in one of the most severe prisons near Havana, together with two thousand other convicts.”

  • With the growth of private, for-profit, prisons here in the U.S.A., many prisoners are required to work, often on a piece-work basis, for their corporate clients. If they don’t, they run the risk of severely restricted punishments, such as solitary conefinement. Sometimes, the judges in cahoots with these outfits, such as the two juvenile justices in central Pennsylvania recently, who were sending all sorts of youths to jail, even those with minor and first-time infractions. Of course they were found out (only when one of their victims turned out to be a girl with articulate, middle-class parents, who know their rights; you can only imagine how many victims, country-wide, never have their cases reach the light of day). Incidentally, there is a greater percentage of U.S. citizens incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons now than were ever incarcerated in the gulag under Stalin! Of course our corporate-controlled media do not mention this fact.

  • Cuban unions are not unions as we understand them. There is no right to strike and their activity is managed by the managers of the enterprise they work for.

  • Work is not a right in Cuba (and for that matter anywhere in the world), and as far as I know Cuba doesn’t guarantee full employment to its workforce outside of the prisons, so I don’t see why it would do so with criminals.

    What the officer probably meant is that their status as prisoner won’t disqualify them automatically from working. That of course doesn’t mean that EVERY inmate can do ANY job; I’m sure the job availability depends on the crime that putted he or she behind bars, the risk of escape and the chance of putting others at risk, so probably mass murderers won’t be allowed to work at all.

    Your other points are pretty stupid, a person lost a LOT of rights while imprisoned, so they probably won’t be allowed to be unionized and there is no need to do so as long as they receive the same or comparable salary as the people outside of prison doing the same work.

    And there is a simple reason why inmates are not allowed to carry money or get paid in cash: besides the obvious risk of using the money to bribe guards or other prisoners, having money with you is an extra incentive to beat you to a pulp, sodomize you and then rob you and to do so regularly every paycheck day until you either get used to it or you snap and either kill yourself or kill your tormentors.

    Either way it means trouble for everyone involved, so is better to let the money rest in a bank account or something and either get it once you are released or send it regularly to your family.

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