Ernesto Jose: between Prison and Freedom

Ernesto J. Reyes


By Ivett de las Mercedes

HAVANA TIMES — Ernesto Jose Reyes Morales is 45 years old and he was in a prison in Quivican, located in Mayabeque province, in 2001. He was charged with misappropriation of funds and he had to serve this unfair sentence. State resources, in the area that he was responsible for, disappeared.

HT: How long were you at Quivican prison?

Ernesto Jose: The judge sentenced me to eight years. Afterwards, this sentence was reduced to four and I only served a third of my sentence because of good behavior. In the end, I was there a year and eight months. I had never been in prison before, I thought that I would just get a fine. They never found the resources that disappeared or any proof to incriminate me to the crime directly.

HT: What was your trip to prison like?

EJ: In a closed truck.  My wife and son, who was 2 years old at the time, followed behind in a car with my father-in-law. Before I went into the prison, I was able to say goodbye to them. I was very sad, even though I knew I wouldn’t be there very long. I reeled when I saw the barbed wire fence, it gave me the impression that I was in a movie, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Leaving the life I had built with my wife and son behind made everything seem so unreal. How could life change from one minute to the next?

HT: What is the first thing you remember from that day?

EJ: I was very anxious. I thought it was stupid that I needed to shave my beard off, I didn’t know who I could go to to get hold of a razor. There were several young men working in the outside part of the prison, I later discovered that this exception is made when your sentence is nearly up. One of them offered to get me a razor, that’s how I was later able to take the typical mugshots: a portrait and side profile. Later, I was assigned to a cell. Bunks were three-storeys high and there was a ladder on the side. The mattress was full of bugs, but luckily, they changed these for foam mattresses a short while later.

HT: Were you in the same place as others who had been convicted of murder?

EJ: No, murderers and those serving life sentences were in a place they called “the shark”, I don’t know why. To tell you the truth, I never saw any extreme act of violence. That doesn’t mean to say it didn’t exist though, I heard a lot of stories, but in prison, if there’s one thing aplenty it’s stories. 

HT: What work did you do during that time?

EJ: First of all, I was very lucky. The next day, I was assigned to the prison guards’ pantry. I don’t know whether that’s because I inspired their trust because of my serious manner or because my father-in-law gave them a little something. I used to hand out breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can’t really complain about that, I always managed to get something and the prison guards’ food was much better. I put on weight without even realizing. Afterwards, I had to run back to eat with my unit, I couldn’t miss the call. Dinner time was the time when some inmates decided to test their strength: some of them thought that seats were fixed, others wouldn’t put up with the small meals they were given and began to protest or stick their spoons in another person’s plate or just took a tray off the weakest inmate there.

Ilustración por Carlos

HT: Did your wife ever come for the private visits they call the “Pavilion” here?

EJ: Several times. It wasn’t a hotel, of course, it had the basic. You really don’t get any time, sometimes you could buy a few hours extra from someone who needed the cash. When a couple are both in prison, the inmate wife came to the Pavilion to see her inmate husband, and not only women, same-sex couples were also able to meet.

HT: How did you get on with the other inmates?

EJ: The prisoners that approach newcomers first are the ones who are serving the longest sentences. The rest begin to prowl, they feel about, looking for a sign of weakness… those are decisive moments and you are either a wolf or a sheep. I made good friends with a young man who had beaten his father-in-law to death with his bare two hands. He got me out of a tough spot more than once and I even had to stand up for him once. It was the best thing that could have happened. In a male prison, you can’t ever owe anyone a favor, sometimes it’s a matter of life or death. When you have never been to boarding school, it’s hard to shower or use the restroom without doors where everyone can see what you are doing.

HT: What were your weekends like?

EJ: Sometimes I would hang out in the game room. There was only one TV per wing and it would always be on the same channel and only switched on at night. Back then, it was always Mesa Redonda or the news. I would read or play cards most of the time.

HT: When you were about to get out, where did they send you?

EJ: I first went to a camp near the prison. Then, I was sent to a farm, I would leave every fifteen days to go out, sometimes I would escape home. I was working on the farm, planting and picking tomatoes. I was especially making plans for the future which is like day-dreaming. I was dreaming until the day I left that prison for good. Now, I work for myself, I’m my own boss, I pay my debts with the bank and the most important thing is that nobody can ever blame me again for something that I didn’t do.  

HT: What did being in prison mean for you?

EJ: Losing your freedom is the worst thing that can happen to a human-being. This word is full of so much meaning. If you can’t breathe in the sea air, the countryside air, or even car fumes. If you can’t hold your partner’s body every time you want to and kiss your child, take them to school or just watch them playing in the park, drink rum with your friends on the Malecon; then you aren’t free. Prison takes all of your rights as a human-being away from you and it’s only when you are behind bars that you understand that.