When I asked Cuban journalist Oscar Sánchez Madan to describe in one sentence his three years in jail, he told me: “I don’t wish on anybody the dreadful experience I had in prison.” A municipal court in Unión de Reyes, province of Matanzas, freed him on Sunday after he completed a three-year prison term. Around 6 a.m., the journalist, at left, picked up his clothes and other personal belongings and left Combinado del Sur, a prison for common criminals in Matanzas, northern Cuba. He also took along with him the cruel memories of his time behind bars.
During his confinement, Sánchez said, he shared an 86-square-foot (8-square-meter) jail cell with 12 other prisoners. The cell, he described, had three walls with tiny windows near the ceiling, bars on the front, and a toilet with running water only once a day. “If we wanted to have water the whole day, we had to store the water in our own buckets,” he said.
The irregular water service along with a lack of cleaning supplies severely affected the prisoners’ health, the journalist said: “Detainees, including me, were diagnosed many times with severe, chronic diarrhea and parasites.” At one point, it was so bad the state health agency had to be called in, Sánchez said.
Some of the detainees sharing Sánchez’s jail cell had committed murder and other serious crimes. Sánchez himself was in prison for “social dangerousness,” a vague charge in Cuba’s penal code he was given in 2007 after covering a local corruption scandal. The penitentiary’s managers usually assigned prisoners to different cells on a rotating basis, the journalist said. But in his case, “they chose to keep me always in the same jail, sharing the room with people who had convictions of 15 or 18 years on charges of murder or other serious, violent crimes.”
The journalist explained that dangerous criminals regularly act as agents for local authorities in prison by monitoring and harassing journalists and political prisoners. He said they would make up rumors or provoke fights—he was once beaten.
Despite all the obvious difficulties of his situation, Sánchez decided to keep his profession on track while in jail. “I committed myself to reporting on prison conditions and slipping shorts stories into my family’s and friends’ hands during visiting hours,” he said.
An original 2007 four-year conviction was later reduced to three years. But even after three years incarcerated, Sánchez remains firmly committed to his work: “I would prefer to continue reporting and writing about current affairs on the island, including human rights violations by the Cuban government,” he said to Miami-based Radio Martí the day after the release.
Twenty-one journalists remain in jail in Cuba.