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Michael Santos Headshot

I Want My Human Rights Too!

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Dr. Oscar Biscet is a Cuban physician who served 12 years in that country's prisons for "crimes against state security." In an op-ed article that the Wall Street Journal published on Wednesday, 21 March, Dr. Biscet wrote that his crimes amounted to asking the Cuban state to respect the fundamental human rights of every Cuban citizen. Pope Benedict XVI has scheduled a trip to Cuba next week and Dr. Biscet expressed hope that the Pope's influence and prestige might convince the Castro regime to extend liberty to the Cuban people.

Dr. Biscet described Cuba as a police state. In his op-ed article, he wrote that government agents spy on and harass anyone who advocated for human rights. They beat and imprisoned anyone who sought peaceful political change. They arbitrarily arrested and detained Cubans for disrespecting patriotic symbols and for insulting symbols of the fatherland. He wrote about prisoners being handcuffed behind their backs and stripped naked in groups for 12 to 24 hours. He wrote of prisoners being tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, or being beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention.

I have a connection to Cuba. My father escaped from that country soon after Castro took power. My dad fled to America with hopes for a better life. Soon after he received asylum to remain in the United States, he met my mother, an American. They married, had three children, and built a business that reared our family in comfortable surroundings. Despite their efforts to give my sisters and me a better life, I succumbed to bad influences during a reckless transition between my youth and adulthood. At 23, I was arrested for trafficking in cocaine. Despite my not having a history of violence or previous incarceration, my judge imposed a 45-year sentence. The crime I committed coupled with the sanction I received broke my father's spirit. He died when I was in my 17th year of my sentence.

Unlike Dr. Biscet, I was incarcerated because I made bad decisions and I regret them. Nevertheless, locking people in prison for decades at a time despite their not having histories of violence, weapons, or victims strikes me as being inhumane and beneath any enlightened society. Dr. Biscet calls for a free Cuba, asking for free speech, freedom of association and assembly, free and fair multiparty elections, and a country from which no person will ever again be exiled for political beliefs. He calls for the basic human rights that we recognize in a democracy, and President George W. Bush awarded Dr. Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

Although I have not been beaten during the 25 years that I've served in prisons of every security level, throughout my journey prison administrators have repeatedly violated those same types of human rights that Dr. Biscet described.

I can look back on my long climb through decades of imprisonment and remember being locked in cages because of my efforts to publish writings that would educate others about America's prisons and the people they hold. Administrators have routinely denied me access to visit with professors who wanted to befriend and mentor me. They claimed that since I built those relationships from within prison walls and that I did not know the scholars before my incarceration, visits would interfere with the security of the institution. They used that same reason for denying me access to an academic opportunity at the University of Connecticut that would've led to my earning a Ph.D. Despite the stated bureaucratic reason, I always felt that administrators were denying me freedom of association and assembly.

As a prisoner, I am not allowed to participate in free and fair elections, notwithstanding the enormous influence political elections have over my life. My political beliefs are simple. Individuals should have the liberty to live as they choose so long as they don't interfere with the liberties of others. And the government should not legislate morality. That said, I've been exiled for a quarter century because during my early 20s, I sold cocaine to consenting adults. It was a bad decision, the kind that reckless young men make. Yet I'm convinced that the United States government commits the greater wrong when it incarcerates nonviolent citizens for decades at a time without review.

After his visit to Cuba, perhaps Pope Benedict can visit the United States and use some of his influence and prestige to bring more basic human rights to the 2.3 million people locked in America's wretched prison system.

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