Cuban Five speak about US prisons

gerardo cuban5 US prison
Gerardo Hernández (center) of the Cuban Five at Victorville prison in 2006, with fellow prisoners.

In December 2014, the remaining three of the five men known as the Cuban Five were released from their US prison sentences and returned as heroes to socialist Cuba. They had been imprisoned since 1998 on a range of spurious charges, following their arrests for espionage. The Five were indeed spies, but their mission was to protect Cuba by monitoring counter-revolutionary organisations in Miami, not to spy on the US government. Following their release they spoke to Pathfinder Press about their experiences; that discussion has been reproduced as the pamphlet ‘It’s the poor who face the savagery of the US “justice” system’ – the Cuban Five talk about their lives within the US working class.

Inside the US prison system
The Cuban Five did not have any official status as political prisoners and – other than for some relatively brief but extremely punitive periods of solitary confinement – they were held within the mainstream prison population. This meant that, in the words of the pamphlet’s introduction, they became ‘not only Cuban revolutionaries, living and working in the US precariously … [but] … communists deeply immersed in the US working class.’

Ramon Labanino describes the US justice system as ‘an enormous machine for grinding people up’ and imprisonment as ‘a way of dehumanizing people’ (p39). The process begins with excessive criminal charges and the threat of a lifetime behind bars, even for relatively minor crimes; faced with this prospect, 95% of those accused plead guilty in return for lesser sentences, the dropping of some charges or some other kind of plea-bargain.

From the courts, prisoners are gobbled up by the massive incarceration machine. Antonio Guerrero describes how ‘most people in federal prison lose contact with their families within a few months. Most families don’t have the economic resources to support someone in prison…With no family support, no money beyond the pittance you make in prison, you become more and more isolated … you’ve got no choice but to take on the rhythm of the prison. The prison becomes your world … Some join the gangs just to get along, or in other cases they prefer to join a church. Some start selling drugs … The system forces them in that direction by taking everything else from them’ (p53-54).

Political prisoners
The Five refused to be sucked into this negative atmosphere. Held in prisons across the country, far from their families and separated even from each other, they all determined individually that they would remain strong, live within prison in a principled way, treat those around them fairly and spend their time as productively as possible. They built up good relations with other prisoners, including with exiled Cubans who might have been expected to show antipathy towards them; using their connections in Cuba, members of the Five helped Cuban prisoners to reconnect with families they had lost contact with after they left for the US. They also had good relationships and political discussion with African American prisoners, who asked them about Cuba’s role in Angola and borrowed books which Pathfinder Press sent them about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Ramon says: ‘When I received books, I’d read them and then immediately pass them on. Afterwards I’d sit down with others to talk about them… And we’d start to discuss and debate... These debates were like political discussion circles.’

Other prisoners, and even prison staff, could simultaneously see that the Five ‘were ordinary human beings, that we didn’t create problems for anybody’, and that at the same time they were the focus of an extraordinary amount of attention and solidarity. Not only were the Five being sent copies of revolutionary publications from around the world, but those publications (including both The Militant, the paper of the US SWP, who run Pathfinder Press, and Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, which we sent to the Five throughout their sentence) featured articles about their case, highlighting their treatment and calling for their release. When Gerardo Hernandez was put in solitary in 2010 at Lompoc prison, California, under the notorious ‘Special Administrative Measures’, which the system uses to immobilise prisoners for years, the level of solidarity and international complaint was such that he was returned to normal location in just 13 days.

Cuban prisons
The pamphlet also gives an insight into the prison system in Cuba, partly through the eyes of Cubans met by the Five who had been in prison both in the US and in Cuba. They conclude that although material conditions in US prisons are generally much better, the attitude and approach of prison staff in Cuba is massively different, with the entire emphasis of imprisonment on release and reintegration, rather than on containment and punishment. Gerardo Hernandez provides examples of prisoners in Cuba studying for university degrees on day release, receiving relaxed visits from family members bringing food and drink, having access to weekend home leaves and conjugal visits, and participating in external art projects.

This difference between the two prison systems is not simply a question of more or less strict regimes but is intrinsically related to the type of society which is doing the locking up and into which prisoners will be released. Gerardo explains: ‘In Cuba a prisoner is another human being. He’s someone who made a mistake and is in prison for that reason. It’s not like the US, where the prison population is the enemy – just as uniformed officers there see the people as the enemy. Why? Because on some level they understand there could be a social revolution in the United States some day. And their job is to contain that revolution, in order to protect the social layer that’s in power.’

Nicki Jameson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017

‘It’s the poor who face the savagery of the US “justice” system’ – the Cuban Five talk about their lives within the US working class. Edited by Mary-Alice Waters. Published by Pathfinder Press, 2016, £11.