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Hyatt Bass: Lessons from Cuba’s Incarceration Model

A conversation between Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York, Soffiyah Elijah, and writer Hyatt Bass.

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Image from Flickr user Jeldu

Last summer I traveled to Cuba for the first time, strangely enough to learn about its prisons. I say strangely because while my preconceived notions of Cuban prisons were based mostly on Reinaldo Arenas’s powerful memoir Before Night Falls and the film adaptation directed by Julian Schnabel, which both paint a very grim picture of Arenas’s experience of incarceration in Cuba’s famous El Morro prison during the mid-1970s, the purpose of my trip to Havana was to learn about potential solutions to our own very broken criminal justice system in the US.

I went with a group composed mostly of New Yorkers working in the field of criminal justice reform and led by Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association (CA) of New York. The only private organization in the state with unrestricted access to prisons, the CA makes routine inspections throughout New York, reports its findings and recommendations to the public, and advocates for a more humane criminal justice system.

In Havana, our group met with Cuban lawyers, supreme court and provincial judges, social workers, educators, and government officials in order to learn about the Cuban policies and practices regarding criminal trials, treatment of incarcerated people, juvenile justice, rehabilitation, and re-integration into society. Recently, Soffiyah and I discussed what we’d learned on our trip and what she has learned from studying the Cuban system over the past three decades.

Hyatt Bass for Guernica Daily

Guernica: How did you originally learn about the Cuban criminal justice system and decide it was something you wanted to study?

Soffiyah Elijah: Back in the late 1980s, I took a trip to Cuba with the National Lawyers Guild. I had never had an interest in going to Cuba. But on that first trip I had an opportunity to visit a men’s prison, and I was really struck by everything that was so very different from my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in the United States visiting clients in prison.

When we drove up to the facility, I kept looking for what I was used to here: high stone walls, lots of barbed wire, guard towers, guards with assault weapons. And I didn’t see any of that. We pulled up to a building that looked similar to a large elementary school, and when we entered the building, there was no metal detector, which was something else I wasn’t used to. And no one was checking my bag to look for weapons or contraband, and there was no sign-in book; none of the things that I was used to experiencing when I entered a prison in the United States.

And then our guide announced that we would have, say, maybe two or three hours at the facility, and we could take a tour with him but we were not restricted to staying on the guided tour. So I wandered off with a couple of other people from the Guild, and we just went around the prison and sat in people’s rooms on their bunk beds and talked with them and literally went wherever we wanted, and that was totally different from any experience that I have had in the United States. Even as the executive director of the Correctional Association now, with legislative authority to monitor prison conditions and go inside the facilities in New York, we don’t take unguided tours of any facility. It’s very scripted where we go, and we are always accompanied by prison staff for the entire visit.

You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables.

The following year, I went to a women’s prison in Cuba, and they put on a cabaret. I remember sitting in this huge auditorium with hundreds of people, and there were prison staff, people from the community, and people who were incarcerated all on the stage performing together in costumes. Nobody was in a uniform except the superintendent of the facility.

So what got my brain racing was that those two experiences—the physical layout of the prisons, the fact nobody was in uniform, the intersection between the people from the community, the staff, and the people who are doing time—spoke to what I ultimately learned was a completely different view about people who have been convicted of crimes. You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables.

I’ll be the last one to say that the two Cuban prisons I went to speak for all the prisons in the country. I couldn’t possibly say that. But I can say very clearly what I did see and experience. And I’m not suggesting the US system could be shifted to something like what I saw in those two prisons. That just seems so farfetched. But it definitely created a completely different atmosphere than what I’m used to.

Guernica: What are some of the practices that impress you most about the Cuban system?

Soffiyah Elijah: The Cuban approach to youth justice is far more in keeping with an understanding of human brain development and the need to treat youth differently from adults. Youth are placed in a boarding school type setting there. Scientific research has proven that the section of the human brain that is responsible for impulse control is the frontal lobe. This is the last portion of the brain to fully develop and it does not do so until the mid to late twenties. Most criminal behavior is the result of impulsive actions. Therefore, a rational and enlightened approach to youth justice must take into account the reduced criminal responsibility that should be attributed to young people.

Also, people are given the option to work while they’re incarcerated and to be paid the same amount that they would be paid if they had that job in the free world. And when they are being released, there is an effort to place them in a job analogous to what they were doing when they were inside. There is a work release program, too, that can significantly shorten your sentence.

Another thing that struck me was furloughs. They didn’t have minimum, medium, and maximum-security prisons. The distinction of security level was manifested in how often you got a furlough to go home for the weekend. So, a minimum-security person might get three furloughs a month. A maximum-security person only gets one furlough a month. And that was something very, very different to what I was used to here. We have different facilities for different security levels, and furloughs are not common throughout the US prison system.

We don’t value humans in the same way in the United States. We’re willing to put people on a conveyor belt in criminal court, off to prison, off to reentry, back to recidivism, back inside, without thinking about the long-term damage that we’re doing.

Guernica: I remember we were told that the incarcerated person could dress in civilian clothes and go home to visit his or her family with a guard also dressed in civilian clothing. Additionally, while someone is imprisoned, there is a social worker who regularly visits the family to make sure the spouse, parents, and/or children are doing okay in that person’s absence.

Soffiyah Elijah: A total support system. And in Cuba, no matter where your crime was committed, if you’re going to be incarcerated, you will be incarcerated in the province where you live to facilitate close family communication, which is something that’s totally foreign here.

Guernica: What do you think would be the big obstacles to doing some of these things in the US?

Soffiyah Elijah: In order to really understand why the system is just so fundamentally different, we have to take a giant step backwards to look at what is the funneling source. Prisons in the US are tied to a profit margin. And in Cuba, prisons are tied to, and the society is focused on, valuing the human being. So everything that they do, from the education to the fact that the healthcare system is free, to the entire approach of incarcerating someone, is tied to how do we make the most out of each individual, because the view is that the human is the most precious resource that their country has.

We don’t value humans in the same way in the United States. We’re willing to put people on a conveyor belt in criminal court, off to prison, off to reentry, back to recidivism, back inside, without thinking about the long-term damage that we’re doing, not only to that person but also to their family, to their community, an ultimately, to our society. Only now is the dialogue starting to shift a little bit to think about those things, and sadly, in the US, what’s driving people to start thinking differently about it is they’re focused on how much it costs financially. Now some might say, well, I mean, the Cubans are focused on that too. But they never went down that path of bankrupting the economy on locking people up. Their whole system is geared towards if someone’s going to be incarcerated, what’s the shortest amount of time necessary, and what are all the things that we need to package around that person to help that experience give them the stepping stones so that they never come back.

Guernica: When you talk about valuing the human being in Cuba, I felt that so strongly when I was there. But it’s hard to speak about when you return, because people just look at you like you’ve lost your mind. They say, “You really drank the Kool-Aid.”

Soffiyah Elijah: Yeah. Far too often, once I say that I’ve seen this work in Cuba, people turn off. And I can’t say that, so it’s almost like a taboo. But the whole society cannot be staged. Right? It’s a different culture, a different outlook on life. One of the things that I find really interesting in Cuba, no matter what part of the country you’re in, whether people are living very, very poorly, or a better level of existence, Sunday evening, on a hot evening, after dinner, you see loads and loads and loads of families walking, just taking a stroll—the children, the parents—peacefully, but that is an activity, and it’s just very loving and nurturing. And I don’t mean like the land of milk and honey. The people are struggling, but they’re enjoying each other’s company. And having a peaceful coexistence.

Guernica: I don’t want to imply that Cuba is a total paradise, and I think we all carried a healthy balance of skepticism and openness into all of our meetings in Cuba just as we would do in similar meetings here.

Soffiyah Elijah: The thing that is most important about Cuba is it gives an opportunity for people to just go and see for themselves. It’s not all right. It’s not all wrong. It’s not all left. It’s not all right. It’s a different society, and my hope is that the embargo will end and then the travel restrictions will be totally eliminated, so that Americans are free to go and see and learn and experience friendships like they could do anyplace else.

Guernica: Why do you think your request for our group to visit a prison in Cuba was denied?

Soffiyah Elijah: We were not an official delegation and we were not requesting an inspection. I never received a denial, although of course, we could claim that if we did not get a yes we were denied. That fails to recognize the sensitive nature of the request in the first place in light of the long historical allegations of human rights violations by the US against Cuba that escalated in the 1990s, a few years AFTER I’d visited Cuban prisons. My recent request to visit a Cuban prison came in the midst of historical political negotiations to normalize relations between Cuba and the US. This important contextual framework is imperative in understanding the full significance of our trip at this historical moment.

Guernica: Something that really made an impression on me while we were there was the contrast between what we were hearing in our meetings about the treatment of people in prison there and what I was hearing from you whenever we got back on the bus in terms of the horrible abuses you’ve witnessed in New York prisons. Could you talk about that?

Soffiyah Elijah: So many horrific things happen here. One stark contrast is the routine use of solitary confinement in our prisons. The use of solitary confinement in the US is so abusive that it shocks the conscience. In February 2016 Albert Woodfox was finally released from prison after serving forty-three years in solitary confinement! Contrast this with the fact that they don’t use solitary confinement at all in Cuba. Another contrast is that in Cuba, if you’re sentenced to the death penalty, you have an automatic right of appeal all the way up to the National Assembly to decide on whether or not that sentence is going to be imposed, and the last time it was imposed was in 2003. Also, in Cuba, if someone is charged with murder, the very first thing that happens is a complete psychosocial evaluation, because there is an assumption that if someone’s behavior is so aberrant that they engaged in murder, there must have been something psychologically wrong with them. As opposed to the assumptions that are made here. Nothing, nothing like that happens here.

Guernica: My understanding is that in New York you have an established network of formerly incarcerated people and currently incarcerated people who let you in on what’s really going on inside the prisons so that if you visit and they try to present things as better than they are, you know it.

Soffiyah Elijah: Correct. Some of those people work here at the Correctional Association, and then we have a network of coalition members and advisory board people.

Guernica: What about Cuba? How do you know what’s really going on inside those prisons?

Soffiyah Elijah: I ask my friends there who know people who have been incarcerated there, “So tell me, what do people say was their experience?”
“What’s the real deal?” “This is what I heard at this lecture.” “This is what I heard here.” You know? “What do you see the police doing?” “What are people describing happened to them when they were incarcerated?” And they’re not describing these human rights abuses that are being reported in the United States. Now, obviously I haven’t been to every prison in Cuba. I haven’t talked to every person who’s ever been incarcerated. But I know that Cuba’s crackdown on corruption and violation of their public trust is very serious. So, I think that contributes to why they don’t have a police brutality problem and they don’t have an abuse problem inside the prisons.

Guernica: The Correctional Association of New York’s role in inspecting New York prisons and publicly condemning the abuses you yourself have seen and heard about firsthand are crucial to making the American system more humane. How do you reconcile what you like about the Cuban criminal justice system with the fact that an NGO like the Correctional Association could not exist there?

Soffiyah Elijah: First, your question presumes that an NGO like the CA could not exist. I do not feel equipped to make that assertion. It also, more subtly, presumes that only a CA-like structure can accomplish its goals and pursue its mission in Cuba. In light of the fact that the political infrastructure is vastly different in Cuba and the United States, such a presumption may be flawed.

The Correctional Association was founded over 170 years ago by very wealthy people who wielded tremendous influence in New York politics. It was headed by a socially conscious judge, John Edmonds, who was troubled by the conditions the people he sentenced to prison were forced to endure. He was disturbed so much by these conditions that he rallied his friends to join him in doing something about it. Using their political influence, they succeeded in getting the New York legislature to bestow upon them the authority to inspect all prisons and jails and report their findings. They were not given funding by the lawmakers. However, due to their own wealth, they were able to operate without it.

There is only one other private independent organization similar to the CA in the United States, The Pennsylvania Prison Society. Unlike the CA, it uses its access to advocate on behalf of individuals and does not pursue systemic change. It was founded in 1787. Many activists in the prison reform movement across the country have noted that it would be impossible today to replicate the CA in other states due to political resistance by lawmakers and policy wonks.

So, would it be financially feasible to create and sustain a CA-like organization in Cuba? The CA is almost totally funded by private donors and foundations. Philanthropic organizations do not exist in Cuba. Cuba is a very poor country and its resources are focused on feeding, housing, educating and caring for the health of the people. Similarly, very wealthy individuals do not exist in Cuba. Yes, some people are enjoying a somewhat higher quality of life, but the vast amounts of wealth that we see in the US are not the norm in Cuba.

In one of our meetings in Havana, we asked if they shackle women during childbirth, and they looked at us like we were accusing them of some kind of barbarism. We explained with embarrassment that we were only asking if they engaged in the same practice that we have here.

The political feasibility question is undoubtedly what most people will presume is answered with a resounding no. However, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are designed to build in opportunities for popular input by the people on a block-by-block basis and thereby facilitate a participatory governance structure. Despite their many successes, the Committees are mechanisms of the State and therefore are at least potentially less objective than an NGO like the CA could be. It may be difficult to determine whether or not the committees are sufficient to address the sorts of concerns that the CA has struggled to expose in the US.

Guernica: One of the things you yourself have been really instrumental in putting an end to in New York state is the practice of shackling women during childbirth and pregnancy. But I understand from the Correctional Association’s recent report on reproductive health that the majority of pregnant women are still being shackled in violation of the law.

Soffiyah Elijah: It’s true. It’s true.

Guernica: In one of our meetings in Havana, we asked if they shackle women during childbirth, and they looked at us like we were accusing them of some kind of barbarism. We explained with embarrassment that we were only asking if they engaged in the same practice that we have here.

Soffiyah Elijah: That’s a good point. Yeah. They couldn’t fathom how any society could think of shackling a woman when she was giving birth. Just being able to be in a society and hear how bizarre it is to them that we would shackle a woman while she’s giving birth, or while she’s pregnant at all—so, that kind of supports and fuels your righteous indignation to push back and advocate even harder to say, “No, I’m not crazy. I know that this does not have to be the norm, and what’s being done here is barbaric.”

Hyatt Bass lives and writes in New York City. Her debut novel, The Embers, was published in 2010. She is a fellow of the Writer’s Institute and a candidate for an MFA in Fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Soffiyah Elijah is the Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York. An accomplished advocate, attorney, scholar and educator, Ms. Elijah is the first woman and the first person of color to lead the nearly 170-year old organization in its mission to create a fairer, more effective and humane criminal justice system.

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