HAVANA TIMES, Dec 27 — Just 24 hours after the announcement by Raul Castro — in the middle of the Christmas season — the government began releasing over 2,900 prisoners, many of whom are now in their homes.
We managed to talk with several of them during these hectic last 48 hours.
Finding a few of them wasn’t difficult. In almost every neighborhood there are freed prisoners; one only needs to ask around to a few residents to find out where they live.
At their homes, the festivities were reigning and everyone was willing to talk to us about this “Christmas gift.”
“After the Commander [Castro] spoke, they held a meeting in a facility where the director of Jails and Prisons told us that we were going home without our having to pay anymore debts to society,” explained Lazarus Crespo, who — though only 36 years old — has spent 19 of those in prison.
He recalled the authorities telling him, “If today we were going home, it’s because we deserve to be integrated back into society.” He added, “At that moment I felt tremendous joy, but I had to control myself so I wouldn’t have a heart attack.”
“This is something great. It has brought such happiness to so many mothers and families who were separated from their loved ones for so long,” Crespo said, adding that he hopes this continues to be done every year, as promised by President Raul Castro in his speech.
Re-integration into society
Lazarus pointed out that, “I’ve been in many prisons, even ‘El Combinado,’ but over the last two years in an encampment, where we were training, studying and learning new skills. Now the only thing left for me to do is to integrate into society and to try to never slip back.”
He explained that Cuban prisons have various training courses and that participation in them is considered by authorities as points in favor of the prisoner because these increase their chances for social reintegration.
Agustin Valdes learned of the pardon on Christmas day, just hours before being released. “I was in the prison camp and they told us that we had to go to another one because they were going to free us. I felt tremendously excited. I’ve spent 26 years prison and my sentence was for 21 years more.”
“Not only can I integrate into society, but I have to, because I have my children and my family, which are there thanks to God,” explained Augustine, adding proudly: “I’m not starting from zero. In prison I became an electrician and a Class A maintenance worker.”
Augustine, who is thanking God after every sentence, now strolls down the street with his little son who never leaves his side.
It truly is a miracle, but it’s also the work of Cuban churches, which made this request of clemency to President Raul Castro.
And this won’t be the last, according to what the Cuban president said in his address to parliament. Releases will be made each year, even larger ones than this, after analyzing “[each inmate’s] conduct, the characteristics of the acts they committed, and the conditions of their family and their health.”
Jose Menendez del Monte went to prison for a minor cause, but once inside, things became “complicated,” so they extended the sentence to 58 years.
He couldn’t believe what was happening, and no wonder: “I was in prison for 26 years and I still had 32 more to go,” he explained.
“When I heard we were going to be freed, I felt an immense joy. I couldn’t believe it,” said Jose while also responding to the greetings of his neighbors.
He was driven from prison in a bus to his neighborhood, and from there he walked to his house.
“When I saw him standing at the door, I couldn’t believe it. The excitement was tremendous,” said his wife, Ana.
She commented, “It’s even more exciting given the date, because now we can spend the holidays together.”
“Reintegration won’t be difficult. I have my mother, my wife and my children. I’m also a history teacher – I studied that in prison. But I would love to be a cultural promoter, that’s another activity I learned there. I want to feel free and useful, and never go back to prison,” he insisted.