HAVANA (IPS/GIN) — The life histories of Cuban women in prison for murdering their violent husbands or boyfriends show the need for reforms of the criminal code to take account of gender reasons as mitigating factors in sentencing.
Most (63 percent) of the nearly 4,000 Cuban women in prison are serving sentences for embezzlement and theft.
But “we have inmates who committed very serious acts related to domestic violence. For instance, most of the women who committed homicides did so against husbands who abused them or fathers who raped them as children. These cases should be given different legal treatment,” said the director of the Havana Women’s Prison, Lieutenant Colonel Sara Rubio.
“The criminal code does not differentiate between these kinds of situations,” Rubio told IPS during a tour of four penitentiary centers for local and foreign correspondents on Tuesday Apr. 10. This is the first time since 2004 that the authorities have opened the doors of prisons to the international press.
Prison sentences for crimes like embezzlement, theft and homicide can range from eight to 30 years.
Rubio, who is in charge of the largest women’s prison in the country, insisted that “special treatment is needed for cases associated with gender violence,” a problem for which Cuban civil society is calling for a gender perspective to be applied more fully in the country’s laws.
In fact, civil society organizations and state agencies have been carrying out a campaign since 2007 calling for specific legislation on domestic violence. In 2012 it reached eight of the country’s 15 provinces.
In addition, the short prison sentences incurred by offences such as prostitution should be replaced by non-custodial sentences, Rubio said. Cuba prohibits the sex trade in all its forms.
Better known as El Guatao because of the Havana neighborhood where it is located, this is one of two closed prisons for women. The other is in Camagüey, 534 kilometers east of Havana. In addition, there are 16 open facilities in the country.
On May 1 the government must present a report on its prisons policy to the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will hold sessions Apr. 22-May 3 this year in Geneva.
International human rights organizations and domestic dissident groups have criticized Cuba’s prisons policy.
The prison population of this Caribbean country is over 50,000 people, according to Colonel Osmani Leyva, deputy chief of the National Directorate of Prisons. The total population of Cuba is 11.2 million.
This figure is lower than in May 2012, when there were 57,337 inmates, Leyva told IPS.
“Every day, prisoners are granted early release” from Cuba’s 200 penitentiaries, he said. Inmates are given time off for good behavior, and “alternatives to custodial sentences, such as extramural correctional employment (work release),” also reduce prisoner numbers, he said.
But an anti-corruption campaign launched in 2009 may have led to an increase in the prison population.
According to Rubio, 63 percent of women prisoners in Cuba are serving sentences for embezzlement, theft, fraud, burglary and aggravated robbery. Many of these are economic or corruption-related crimes, a problem that “has hit us hard,” she said.
Rubio directs a non-conventionally structured prison with some 400 women inmates, aged mostly between 31 and 59. Women tend to commit crimes “at a mature age,” when they are over 30, and recidivism is “only 15 percent,” she said.
Here, the women are not locked up in cells, but live in dormitories with eight bunk beds each which have doors, rather than bars. The facility has a theatre, sports areas, televisions, dining hall, kitchen and classrooms.
Inmates have access to public phones. They are allowed family visits once a week, and conjugal visits every 21 days.
Lázara López is a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. She has served one of the six years of her sentence for theft in El Guatao.
“I did it for them. Now I regret it because they really need me at home with them,” she told IPS. “My daughter has to look after the little one,” the 33-year-old Havana resident said.
Women, who are generally responsible for raising the children and looking after the family, find it hard to delegate that responsibility to relatives or leave their charges unattended while they are in prison.
“They are women, just like us,” prison educator Minisleidy Calderón told IPS. “Sometimes we chat with them to persuade them to calm down and behave,” said this young woman who teaches 80 inmates. As part of their re-education, most of the women choose to work in state institutions outside the prison.
The government of former president Fidel Castro promoted the idea of “turning prisons into schools,” so that prisoners can continue their formal education, learn a trade or work in state institutions. Thirty-eight percent of the women at El Guatao are enrolled in educational courses. They also have access to sporting and cultural activities and involvement in the community.
There are few women inmates between the ages of 16 – the age of criminal responsibility in Cuba – and 30: in El Guatao they represent only three percent.
One of them is 19-year-old primary school teacher Damayantis Reyes, who is five months pregnant. She is serving a one-and-a-half year sentence for causing bodily harm.
Pregnant women in prison receive the same health care they would get outside of jail, and they receive a special diet. They are allowed to keep their babies with them until the child’s first birthday.
“The conditions are good and we are well treated, but we’re never OK. No one wants to be here,” Reyes told IPS. The father of her unborn baby broke off their relationship when she went to prison. “I’m going to go back to teaching when I get out of here,” she said.