In Libertad Prison

The following description of conditions at Libertad Prison in Montevideo, Uruguay, is excerpted from the International Red Cross “Mission Report: Brazil—Argentina—Uruguay, February 10—March 3, 1980.” This document was written as an internal report by Jean François Labarthe, a Red Cross representative who visited Uruguay early in 1980. When some of its findings were reported in the press, the Red Cross mission was banned in Uruguay, and Uruguayan military authorities have made it clear that similar Red Cross missions will not be allowed into the country.

Libertad Prison houses 1,200 male prisoners. For nearly ten years, more than 1,000 of the prisoners held there have been charged with politically subversive activities. Many have completed their sentences and have then been tried on new charges. Amnesty International has reported that since May 1981 the already harsh conditions described by M. Labarthe have deteriorated even further. Food is scarce and of poor quality. Political prisoners have been deprived increasingly of recreation. During 1981, more than a year after the Red Cross report was prepared, two prisoners were reported to have disappeared, while under detention, and a number of others have been brutally tortured, one of them fatally. Liberated Prison continues to be a symbol of Uruguay’s tragedy.

—William L. Wipfler

Two-thirds of the 1,200 prisoners at Libertad live two in a cell. Cell mates are chosen by the administration. Each pair of cell mates may live together for many years. The remaining third of the prisoners are in solitary cells, for as long as seven years in some cases, and often for twenty-four hours a day, despite the daily hour of walking announced by the authorities.

The guards are soldiers who spend a part of their training period in the prison. They stay there only from one to two months, and spend only a few days at a time on any given post.

All verbal communication with the prisoners is forbidden, with a single exception: the statement of punishments, systematically distributed according to regulations. The implementation of every sanction is always connected with a violation of the rules. The problem, however, is that such rules undergo daily changes, so that sanctions are never predictable. Every privilege may suddenly become a crime and therefore give rise to a sanction. Another form of harassment or punishment: nighttime searches which may involve the total destruction of the prisoner’s personal belongings, the cell being completely emptied by a soldier. It may take months for the prisoner to re-create his environment.

Libertad Prison is under a system of self-management by the prisoners, to the extent that they are associated with all phases of the operation of the prison: cooking, administration, updating the punishment rolls, cell assignments, organization of visits, mail, and workshops. But at every twist of this facade of trust, harassment springs up, punishment is unleashed, and, holding his gun, a guard watches and threatens from inside a grilled cage.

The prisoner’s head is shaved; a color stripe …

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