Boniato Prison, Santiago de Cuba, June ( [url=http://www.cubanet.org]http://www.cubanet.org[/url] ) - Cell No. 31 is approximately 5 feet wide by 10 feet long, with the bars on the door partially covered by a steel plate and a barred window facing east that lets in light, rain, and insects.
In it there’s only a bunk, made of steel rebar, fiberboard and an old, dirty, hard stuffed mattress.
The toilet is basically a hole regurgitating its stench 24 hours a day. Above it, a faucet provides water for washing and drinking.
There is no table, or chair, or cabinet for personal objects. There are no sheets, no pillows, no mosquito netting, no blanket. There’s no radio or TV, no newspaper or books.
There are no eating utensils, no cup. What there is, is plastic and brought in by relatives. There are no towels.
Our letters are routinely opened. The cell floods daily with effluent from the hallway. The pockmarked ceiling leaks freely when it rains.
The building is surrounded by a wall roughly 28 feet high. This part of the prison is called Boniatico (Little Boniato), the high security section. Here are the lifers and those on death row; although a few are here because they have Aids. The building is more than 60 years old and crawling with vermin; there are rats, cockroaches, scorpions, several species of ants, flies and mosquitoes.
We are taken out individually to the yard one hour a day. They take our handcuffs off once in the yard, and put them back on to return to the cell. They also handcuff us to go get medications. Saturdays and Sundays we get no yard time; we spend almost 60 hours without leaving the cells.
The food is hard to describe; it requires a concerted effort of investigation and imagination. For breakfast, bread (I have not been able to fathom how it’s made) and chorote, a linguistic and culinary innovation: roasted cornmeal that’s later cooked with plenty of water and sugar.
Lunch consists of soup (water, wheat flour and some unrecognizable herb), rice or cornmeal or macaroni, in any case without fat or any other additives. Every once in a while there may be soymeal, or even “cow’s vagina” (the inmates use a cruder expression), a white paste made from wheat flour and other, unrecognizable substances. Once or twice a month, there’s what is called a special meal: a small piece of chicken, rice, some vegetable, and swill they call coffee.
Dinner is the same, but in the afternoon.
Of the rest of the prison I have only been able to see the wire fences, the moats, and the guard houses, on the two occasions they have taken me to the hospital to take my blood pressure.
The guards treat us with respect, because we treat them the same way. Only Juan Carlos Herrera, from Guantánamo, was beaten badly around one eye. I saw him with a swollen face through the window that looks on the yard.
Cuban poet and journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal was arrested during the March-April government crackdown on civil society initiatives. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison under Law 88, the “Gag” law.
Vázquez Portal joined the independent journalists’ movement at the beginning and was the founder of the Decoro Press Agency, later known as the Decoro Work Group.
CubaNet started distributing his work at a time he was in jail, in 1995.
His novel, El Niño del Pífano, can be seen at El Niño del Pífano
CubaNet published his book of poems Celda Número Cero