by Dalia González Delgado & Sergio Alejandro Gómez, Granma
April 24, 2013 (TSR) – There are no security fences, high intensity lights or concrete watchtowers here. The San Agustín Work and Study Center (CTE), in Matanzas, shatters the preconceptions of what constitutes a prison.
How do you ensure the inmates do not go on the run? — that was our first question, possibly conditioned by too many Hollywood movies.
The answer emerged indirectly. The CTE’s were developed from Confidence in the Task, a Battle of Ideas project inspired by a call from Fidel to “turn prisons into schools.”
The 300 inmates who live in the San Agustín center have access to benefits such as guaranteed work, exit passes to visit family, more frequent family visits, and fewer security restrictions. But we should not be deceived; they are also subject to a rigorous disciplinary program and a positive control and educational system aimed at preparing them for reintegration into society.
Those inmates deemed to be low risk have access to this low security regime depending on their sentence or given documented good behavior, as a part of a system of conditions through which they can progress from maximum security, high security and secure (confined to the prison facility), to open prisons.
Every one who arrives at a Work and Study Center combines both study and work which is of use to society and paid, in key areas of construction, agriculture and industry.
“It is very different from being behind bars: you get to communicate more, you get passes, you see your family and you get paid a salary,” confirms Roberto, who is working on the team building some 60 houses for international mission doctors in the Pastorita neighborhood of Matanzas.
He has been in San Agustín for two years, having moved there as a result of his good behavior. He has one more year to serve before he will be considered for release on probation. Every fortnight he sends his bi-monthly income of almost 400 pesos (depending on his results) to his two children, aged 9 and 15, who live in Havana.
He trained as a bricklayer in the CTE and now he says he is ready to go back to his family, he plans to seek a self-employment license and make use of what he has learned in prison. Rolando Roque, a former inmate at San Agustín, already had the chance to make a decision. After his release he continued to work on the same MICONS brigade with which he trained as a welder.
“What I did learn is that one can make living by working,” says Roque, who now earns 400 pesos per fortnight welding.
Amidst the dozen or so buildings which are being constructed to the east of Matanza Bay, some of which are now occupied by doctors and their families, it is impossible to distinguish between inmates, former inmates and civilians.
“Everyone works very hard,” according to “la China de Pastorita”, or “la Tía”, as some of the workers call her, while we enjoy a coffee in the shade. Since the construction began, “la China” has been selling sandwiches, soft drinks and coffee “on site.” “This is a nice quiet place,” she replies when asked if she has ever felt afraid. “They are the heart and soul of this. When they are not around, it feels dead.”
Pascual Cruz Betancourt, works manager, says that collaboration between the MICONS (Ministry of Construction), the CTE and MININT (Ministry of the Interior) works well: “85% of the workers are from San Agustín and there has never been a serious problem.”
The inmates apply in practice what they have studied in the CTE. “Here we add the finishing touch to our experience,” he adds.
It is the training itself which is one of the keys to success. In Pinar del Río the Cuatro y Medio CTE, in San Juan, has educational facilities offering up to 12th grade, a library, a computer lab, as well as a training complex for learning different trades.
José is 20 years of age and he has been in the penitentiary almost a year. As a young offender, he has had differentiated treatment in the CTE and he has taken courses in cooking and restaurant services.
He is currently working as an instructor in the prison itself, supervised by specialists from the Ministry of Education, teaching Natural Sciences to fellow inmates who are completing primary education. He earns 225 pesos a month for this, which he sends to his mother, as he has his basic needs met in prison.
19-year old Pedro Luis must wait a year to apply for early release. In the eight months that he has been in prison he has trained as a bricklayer and worked on the 5 de Septiembre community, building homes for those affected by hurricanes.
“This experience has given me another way of thinking,” he remarks, “now I think about my work and being back with my family.” His mother, who was visiting her son in Cuatro San Juan that day, adds, “I feel very proud because on the street he had failed a year at school and now he has passed 11th grade and is almost done with 12th.”
The 500 or so inmates affiliated with this CTE are dispersed around the province, mainly on building sites and in industry. There are many examples of how the project impacts the community, from the refurbishment of the El Faraón discothèque, right in the center of Pinar del Río, to the manufacture of 130,000 bricks per month, for sale to the public or destined to social projects.
And this is the case across the country. In Horquita, Cienfuegos, those in the open prison work in agriculture, cultivating various crops.
“For the first time I can see the fruits of my labor. I used to want easy money but I have realized that in life everything comes with sacrifice,” says Raydel, who had “never before done a hard day’s physical work.”
Both the inmates and the prison officers who work with them recognize that there is an environment of personal improvement which helps to develop habits and values which will assist inmates as they rejoin society.
Additionally, the figures show that order and discipline have improved in the prisons. Of the total number of prisoners who moved to the least restrictive prisons, 50% benefited from one of the limited release regimes allowed under current legislation, in order to encourage sustained good behavior, and only 5% were returned to closed prisons for violating regulations.
This silent revolution which extends throughout Cuba’s penal system, driven by work and study, reflects the fundamental principles of the Cuban social project, putting the human being at the center.