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 under his uniform number shows the floor he belongs to.

Whenever a prisoner moves out of his cell, he has to keep his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed directly in front of him. A glance over his shoulder or up to the floor above, and he will forfeit the walking hour for several days, which means being confined in his nine-by-six-foot cell, twenty-four hours a day. The prisoner becomes a walking number.

Visits take place in a windowed booth with a telephone. At the close, the prisoner and his visitor may, if they wish, enjoy a moment’s kiss through a tiny opening in the window.

The child who comes to visit (once a month) leaves his or her mother behind the barbed-wire perimeter to meet his or her prisoner father in a pretty garden arranged specially for children’s visits (sandboxes, slides, swings, etc.). The visit, which takes place on a bench, will be stopped as soon as the father makes an affectionate gesture. The punishment will be one or two months of disciplinary cell with no visits. On the other hand, if the father makes no such gesture, he will be able to meet his child during nine hours every year. In any event, following each visit the child is interrogated by a guard.

The glass booths devised for visitors are also used by lawyers, who are officially appointed by the military junta; the telephones used make recording of the conversation possible. The freedom to express himself in writing is “forgotten” by the prisoner: almost all of his letters are seized by the censor.

The prisoner gradually loses contact with his family and his friends. A system of two-way communication between prosecution and defense is quite active.

The fact that physical exercise in the cell is forbidden, and prisoners are not allowed to lie down on the cot during the day, causes irreversible physical damage which can result, after some time in prison, in paralysis or atrophy of certain limbs.


Sometimes a prisoner in a double cell is mentally ill. During one of his crises, he may be gently reinterrogated by the prison psychologist, and he may unwillingly give away information about his single cell mate. The authorities may then take advantage of the situation to resume the questioning of the latter and possibly add several years of imprisonment to his already long sentence.

When this mentally ill prisoner is returned to his cell, racked with guilt, he may attempt suicide. But the administration is there to stop him through constant surveillance, since it does not want this type of “escape” either. About 10 percent of the prisoners are listed by the authorities as mentally ill, and tens of thousands of tranquilizers are handed out each month. Under prison conditions, the inmates’ medical needs are barely related to ordinary treatment, and are geared to a different purpose.

Newspapers and radios are banned. The library only includes books predating the French Revolution; one would say that book publishing stopped forever at that time.

When he is not alone in his cell, the prisoner can talk to his single cell mate. He can also talk with another prisoner during the brief daily walking period. Some prisoners can also exchange a few words if they have the chance to work (in limited groups comprising from three to six people, and without pay). They put together eyeglasses, make dentures, record music, make repairs, do mechanics, soldering, and woodcraft, not to mention fatigue duty. The work teams are constantly shifting and are regularly formed and dispersed following the remote control of an invisible three-party command (army, air force, navy) using soldiers as ephemeral and voiceless agents.

For all of the prisoners, the tension and insecurity effects did not start at the prison doors; they had started earlier, at the time of the interrogation. They have all been tortured, kept in secret places of detention, questioned, all of them without exception, between 1971 and 1979. All of them have spent weeks, months, sometimes more than a year, in military units. In some units, prisoners are tortured with electrodes, in others they are suspended by their arms which have been tied behind their backs or kept with their heads under water until suffocation, not to mention other similar refinements. Then, other military units take these prisoners for “recovery” and get them “back into shape.” Once they are presentable, the soldiers put them into the prison. Some of the prisoners we saw at Libertad had been sent back to military units for second or third interrogations.

Does this type of imprisonment entail serious consequences for the prisoner? If so, what are those consequences?

Deprivation of freedom is, in itself, the most painful of frustrations, and restrictions imposed by the authorities upon the prisoner’s movements and upon his will are a hindrance to his most basic needs. The deprivation of movement for a person who has legs, like the deprivation of a limb or one of his sense organs, causes frustration to a greater or lesser degree.

The prisoner’s reaction to the deprivation depends on:

—the importance of the particular need,

—the person’s tolerance for this frustration,and its duration,

—the defense mechanisms of the prisoner.

The prisoners we met no longer express any needs. They manage by trying to mask their pain and their fear of showing a deteriorated personality to a sympathetic interviewer. They tell the delegates of an anguished and impoverished life, of a silent isolation from people, and of psychological disturbances.

The prisoner is never free to hide, because security requires the constant opening of cell windows and doors and may monitor the performance of everyone’s most private functions.

Among other liberties which the prisoners of Libertad are deprived of, one should not forget the freedom to speak, to whistle, to sing (the rules impose silence). the choice of one’s friends, the freedom to write, to look where one wants upon leaving the cell.

The combined effect of the suppression of visits and censoring, as we have seen, leaves the prisoner alone with his prison mates. He loses his identity as a man and receives in turn the mere identity of a prisoner and his number. He can choose neither his uniform nor his haircut. He is not free to get up, to walk, to take a shower, to shave or to let his beard grow. He must work with no pay; his shoes and his dentures belong to the institution; if he breaks his glasses, he is punished and then deprived of them for a long time; he is kept day and night under lock and key in his concrete cage; he cannot even call the guard.


In the course of the interviews, the prisoners reveal—as much as state explicitly—that they have a minimum of contact with their cell mates and with inanimate objects as well. This lack of sensory stimulation manifests itself in a loss of interest in the environment on the part of the prisoner. He only speaks of himself. His responses are highly emotional. His anguish manifests itself in psychosomatic disturbances. He loses the thread of his sentence and describes his hallucinations. (It is interesting to note from a recent study conducted among the inmates of a prison that the mental health of the prisoners improves noticeably if there are relations with others and a possible adjustment to the realities of daily life.) One prisoner,victim of a neurosis, spoke of having lived in his cell for several months with his father and his sister, who had both been dead for a long time, but alive in his imagination. Then the prison doctor started to medicate him, and since that day this prisoner can no longer stand life. He could live with his hallucinations and had gotten used to the prison, but with this added input of medicine, his condition has collapsed into a psychosis.

Does a doctor have the freedom to prescribe and maintain confidentiality in his relations with prisoner patients in the context of Libertad? One thing is certain, military power takes precedence over medical power, and military power is overwhelming to the imprisoned person.

The prisoner sinks into the quicksand of a robot-like alienated life, where everything is done according to a bell ring, a sign, a whistle, and a nod.

The administration of Libertad fears riots, escapes, and suicides. It knows that with the excessive deprivation of liberty, it is driving prisoners—as a result of their deep emotional distrubances—to the point of suicide, murder, or a psychotic state. In addition to this impoverishment due, in large part, to sensory and social deprivation (tiny concrete cells, banging of the steel doors, solitude, absence of contacts, etc.), the prisoner is unceasingly harassed, provoked, and punished. He must live through periods of increasing discipline, followed by periods of relaxation of restraints.

The tension in the prison can be felt and seen. The insecurity of prisoners who are used to being hounded rises even further during simulated escapes which are staged by the guards who shoot from their watchtowers at dummy prisoner stand-ins while misleading information is broadcast throughout the prison on loudspeakers. Certain sentences are very long; punishment seems out of proportion to the crimes charged, whether actually committed or not. At the end of the sentence, if the prisoner, or rather his family, cannot raise the money to reimburse the cost of board and lodging at Libertad (which may amount to several thousand dollars), the prisoner will not be released.

The prisoner thinks more about what he may not do than about what he is entitled to do; he is not allowed to use his skills; corrective action is always based on fear or deprivation.

Being unequal, the treatment of prisoners at Libertad leads to divisions, tensions, and competition among the prisoners in the midst of their misery. The prisoner has two options: he can try to settle down in this environment as a reaction; he can try to commit suicide or drug himself with medications.

In any event, if the prisoner ever gets out, he will be a different man from the one who was thrown into prison.

One prisoner, upon being freed after six years, said: “The authorities create tensions and then forbid the expression of those tensions.”

This report is part of a preliminary analysis and recapitulation of the effects of massive and lasting security measures implemented in the framework of a maximum security prison….

—From Freedom Appeals, No. 7.

This Issue

November 19, 1981