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Prison visits in Uruguay: an ICRC delegate shares his experiences, 25 years on

03-12-2009 Interview

Hernán Reyes has been an ICRC doctor for 26 years. During this time, he has visited hundreds of prisons across five different continents. In 1984, during the period of military rule in Uruguay, he was finally granted access to nine detainees who had been kept in solitary confinement for over a decade.

 Can you describe your first prison visit in Uruguay during the period of military rule?  

It was at the end of 1982, when the military authorities gave the ICRC permission to start visiting detainees again. I was part of a team of seven delegates, working as a doctor. We went to the " number one " military prison, which some now mistakenly call " Libertad, " the name of the surrounding village. We decided we would see all 1,100 detainees one by one, to ensure nobody felt threatened, and to prevent the authorities from being able to single out and punish those we had met. We also visited the " number two " military prison, where the women were being held. The visits spanned a total of seven weeks – one of the longest stretches of time I have ever spent on this kind of assignment.

Hernan Reyes (right) with Mauricio Rosencof 

We were not authorized to visit the nine leaders of the MLN-Tupamaro movement. Since their arrest in 1973, they had been kept in separate cells, spread out across the country, and had been refused any visit from the ICRC. We discussed our dilemma with the detainees'relatives, and they told us to " keep negotiating with the government about visiting the leaders as well, but in the meantime, please visit the other detainees – at least do something for them. "

Not all detainees accepted the fact that we couldn't see their leaders. One spoke to me for over two hours, getting angrier and angrier, and I spent the whole time trying to justify the ICRC's course of action. Eventually, he grinned and said: “You know, sometimes you have to scratch the skin a little to see what colour the blood is underneath... Thanks for listening! " And I thought to myself: “Getting angry with the ICRC is a form of'therapy'for the detainees. "

 What was the ICRC able to do to improve conditions of detention?  

In concrete terms, very little, but subjectively, a lot. Improving material conditions was not a top priority for the detainees themselves. We managed to ensure that they were allowed to shower daily, but no one had complained about the fact that they were only granted one shower a week. The main aim was to break their isolation and bring them news from the outside. On the second floor of the prison, every other cell in the row was left empty so that the detainees couldn't communicate with their neighbours. Sometimes they went for weeks on end without being let out of their cells. That an ICRC delegate had been to see them, shaken their hand, said " please sit down, sir " and talked with them about their relatives or whatever they liked for at least half an hour…meant so much more to them.

In the women's prison, there were twins who had not seen each other for two years because they had been put in different sections. During my visit as a doctor, I asked the prison director to allow the two sisters to see each other for at least half an hour. The request was granted.

The detainees'relatives would come to see us at the hotel in Montevideo to ask for news and find out if their loved ones were well. They sent letters, which the authorities fortunately let us pass on to the detainees. This exchange of news meant a lot, both to the detainees and to their families.

 How was your visit to the nine detainees who were in almost constant solitary confinement?  

This took place two years later, in 1984. The first I saw was Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro. No one had told him we were coming. When the door to his cell swung open he stared at us, speechless, for a good few seconds, before saying: " How funny, it's the Red Cross! Come on in, take a seat! " During the interview, he stumbled over his words, since he had hardly spoken to anyone over the last few years. But he was extremely happy to see us and quizzed us on what was happening on the outside, how the country was doing, etc.

For the poet and playwright Mauricio Rosencof, we brought in a book that he had written in the 1960s: a play called Las Ranas . When I took it out of my bag, Mauricio cried " Oh, Las Ranas !” He was stunned to discover that his work was still on the market. What he most wanted was to be able to write again, and this gave us the idea of bringing him a typewriter on our next visit, with the authorities'permission. He used it to start writing Memorias del Calabozo ( Prison Memoirs ), which he would later finish with Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, his friend. The typewriter clearly helped Mauricio keep his sanity.

Henry Engler was another of the nine detainees. He told me that solitary confinement was something to be taken very seriously. I asked him how they had managed to avoid going mad, spending years on end in a cell with no bed, no books, nothing. He said: " You have to keep your mind constantly occupied. "

He told me about a time when a sympathetic guard had passed him an orange under the door. How long it had been since he had last seen an orange! He started to peel it very carefully. When he took the first segment into his hands, he looked at it and the shape reminded him of a small boat. How long had it been since he had last been in a boat, or even seen the sea? That is how he kept his mind busy. He spent a whole day contemplating his orange, until he ate it, fearing another guard may take it from him.

 What are the effects of solitary confinement on a detainee's health?  

You have to be very strong to avoid going mad after the kind of isolation that these detainees endured. It doesn't surprise me that two of the nine have been left permanently disturbed by the experience – in fact it's a miracle that the others seem to have come through unscathed. A study has recently been published on the health consequences of total isolation , to which I and another ICRC doctor contributed. It reveals that solitary confinement has serious effects, especially when it is for a prolonged period of time.  

Read also:interview with Mauricio Rosencof, Uruguayan poet and playwright, imprisoned from 1973 to 1985.  
  and The worst scars are in the mind: Psychological torture, International Review of the Red Cross No. 867, Hernán Reyes