Emmy Giacoia ’22 – Blog Post 3

Week 5

On Tuesday, I visited Unidad Penitenciaria No. 28 (de Magdalena) with the general inspections team. The goal for the day was to visit the isolation cells in SAC (sector de aislamiento de convivencia), to see the conditions and interview each of the prisoners. It was difficult to walk through the prison and see men staring and clutching at the bars from inside their cells. At least those men could see outside, though. The prisoners we visited in SAC were kept in tiny, dark, damp cells. Bugs crawled on the walls and the floors, and the smell of sewage and sweat and mold was overwhelming. Several of the men I spoke with had not left their cell in over 2 months, not even to shower. One man was heating up a pot of hot water to “shower” with as we spoke to him. It was painful to see how resigned they were to this life, how they almost seemed okay with the fact that they hadn’t seen the sun in months. It is terrible that they are so used to it.

The Committee contains a second team that goes inside prisons to work directly with prisoners. Instead of conducting general inspections, the complex cases team visits prisons to work with specific prisoners whose cases need more attention than a few interviews. The vast majority of these prisoners have chronic health conditions that require regular medical attention, procedures, and medications, all of which are nearly impossible to obtain from within the prison. First, we attended the team’s weekly meeting, where all current cases are discussed and tasks are divided.

One of the prisoners being discussed was hospitalized for respiratory issues, and I chose to go with the team visiting her. Since I’m planning to go to medical school, I came to Argentina hoping to learn more about what hospitals and healthcare look like here, and I was able to learn a lot about common medical issues and lack of access to healthcare in prisons while working with the complex cases team. On Wednesday, we visited this prisoner at Mi Pueblo Hospital in Florencia Varela to ensure she was getting sufficient medical attention. We found her in a very overcrowded ward, with multiple patients curled up on stretchers in the hallway. Due to the possibility of tuberculosis, she was in an isolated room without windows, naked and covered only in a thin blanket. Her feet and one of her hands were handcuffed, so she was unable to move, and the glass in the door took away any semblance of privacy. She told us that she would rather be in the prison, since being in the hospital alone and unattended was torture in and of itself. Although her symptoms were improving, she was still ill, and she hadn’t received a formal diagnosis of tuberculosis or another respiratory disease. We reassured her that we would speak to her medical team about her prognosis. As we left, she asked us whether it was day or night.

Later that day, I visited several prisons in the Florencio Varela complex. We met with three trans women, all of whom had serious medical conditions that weren’t being adequately followed. I noticed that, besides the obvious lack of medical attention, these women seemed more satisfied with the living conditions in the prisons. Clearly, there are disparities between the prisons, even though the prisoners themselves have committed the same (alleged) crimes. I wonder if the prisoners know about these arbitrary differences, and if they do, how they cope with the knowledge that there are many prisoners that have it a lot better.  

Outside of UP 28 in Magdalena. The suffering inside of these walls is inconceivable.
The toilet and sink in a “buzón” (isolation cell) in the SAC unit of UP 28. The prisoners told us that the toilets often overflow, and there was indeed standing sewage on the ground surrounding the toilet.
The tiny table inside the buzón, with the only light the prisoners had available. There were exposed electrical connections everywhere, which posed a great risk to the prisoners.
The guard tower outside of a prison in the Florencio Varela complex

Week 6

Our last week in La Plata was much more relaxed. We spent most of our time examining the first and second versions of the Istanbul Protocol, which I discussed in the previous blog, and compiling a list of all the revisions. On Friday, we went to a different hospital, this time in Berazategui, to visit the prisoner we checked in on last week. I was relieved to see that she was clothed, in a room with a big window, with food that her friends had brought her. She was excited to show us that only one foot was handcuffed and neither of her hands. It’s a sad thing to celebrate, but I was glad that she was feeling better and receiving better treatment in this hospital. It was a happy ending to my work with the Committee, and I’m very thankful to the prisoners who gave us the privilege of hearing their stories and seeing their vulnerable moments.

I am not the same person I was when I came to Argentina. The changes I’ve seen in myself are too difficult to write about in a short blog post, but it’s sufficient to say that I learned much more about human rights and about myself than I would have thought possible in 6 weeks. I’m already counting the days until I can go back to La Plata.

The last visit to El Bosque in La Plata
My view, drinking mate in a plaza in Buenos Aires – I felt like a local.

Emily Giacoia ’22: Week 2 and Week 3

Week 3

This was the first full week of individual work, and the first week that I’ve felt productive and fulfilled when I leave the Commission each day. As I read more and more interviews with prisoners, I realized that they shared a feeling of resignation and dismissiveness. These people were describing acts of extreme torture and cruelty with the detachment of someone discussing the weather or what they had for dinner. What’s more, there were thousands of prisoners on file and even more thousands of interviews. Unless the prisoner was new to the system, it wasn’t uncommon to click on one’s file and see a list of at least 10 interviews, each with multiple human rights violations. It was frustrating to read an interview with a prisoner asking desperately for medical help, knowing that he got medical help because we took legal action, and then reading the next interview about how he was never taken for follow-up appointments. Although I don’t know about all the work the Committee and the Commission overall do, I wish there was something more tangible and long-term that we could do to help the prisoners. It seems like right now, we’re just putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound.

Week 4

There are two teams within the Commission that work directly in prisons. One team performs general inspections in different areas of prisons. First, they observe the prisoners’ living conditions and to what extent basic human rights (e.g. properly cooked food, mattresses to sleep on, access to showers) are being met. Then they conduct individual interviews with prisoners, who tell them what specific needs they have so their legal team can be informed. One of the materials we used to prepare for our first inspection was a manual called the Istanbul Protocol, which was written by the UN and sets global standards for investigating and documenting torture and mistreatment. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of this manual. Since I’ve never worked in human rights before, I didn’t know that there were so many guidelines. I’m happy that there are guidelines, but I wish torture wasn’t so widespread that we need them.

On Wednesday, we visited Unidad Penitenciaria No. 1 (de Olmos), about 30 minutes outside of La Plata. The plan was to visit the university center there and interview the students about both their education and the general living conditions. As soon as we drove up to the prison, I could sense this feeling of sadness and resignation. It was made worse by the SPB (Servicio Penitenciaria Bonoaerense) guards, who were all joking around with each other in the lobby and cheerfully greeted us as they unlocked each door. I saw the smiles on their faces, and I thought about all the interviews I read the week prior and how these friendly guards treated the prisoners when we weren’t there. Thankfully, the university center was lively and notably lacking SPB presence. We took a tour around the school, and we sat down in a classroom to listen to them talk about the structure of their education, the degrees they could get, and the problems they had getting school supplies and exams. Although I’m not sure why I expected anything different, the prisoners were friendly, and I didn’t feel like I was within prison walls. I know, though, that it would have felt different if we had entered the actual prison.

On Sunday, a few of us took the train into Buenos Aires to visit the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (ex ESMA), which was a naval academy turned into a clandestine confinement and torture center during the last Argentine military dictatorship, from 1976-1983. It was horrific, to say the least. We only went into a few buildings, but the Officer’s House was the most impactful. This was where most desaparecidos were first taken when they were detained. We visited the dark, cold basement where many were kept and tortured, and we read the testimonies from survivors. It was heartbreaking, and it helped me understand the impact of the dictatorships in Argentina. Knowing that people were tortured and assassinated where I was standing, less than 40 years ago, made me realize how important and relevant the work is that the Commission does.

At the end of the week, we began planning our work with the second Committee team, which works on complex cases with specific prisoners.

A mural inside ex ESMA that says “silent no more”
Outside of ex ESMA in Buenos Aires
The outside of UP 1. The university center is located behind the prison.
The view from one of the bell towers of the Cathedral
In Plaza Moreno, facing the Cathedral of La Plata

Emily Giacoia ’22 – Week 1 and 2

Week 1

The Monday after we arrived, we began our internship at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM), where we were welcomed with open arms. This first week was an introduction to the organization’s mission, as well as the different teams we could work with. We also had the honor of hearing the stories of two women whose siblings had disappeared during the dictatorship. This was one of the most impactful moments I’ve had this trip. Prior to coming to Argentina, I had only surface knowledge about the dictatorships, and I don’t think I understood their impact on this country until I heard these stories from real people.

By the end of the week, I had a pretty good idea of which team I wanted to work with. I enjoyed learning about archiving and writing biographies for the desaparecidos (disappeared people), as well as the outreach possibilities that would come with the communications and culture team, but I knew I wanted something more hands-on. On Friday, after we finished touring the CPM museum, we all sat down to discuss which projects we wanted to do. I chose to work with the Committee against Torture, which protects the human rights of prisoners here in the province of Buenos Aires. I knew I would have the opportunity to form face-to-face relationships, which was the one goal I had when I accepted this internship. Plus, I would get to work with three different teams within the Committee, each of which would teach me new things.

We visited Buenos Aires for the first time that weekend. None of us had seen it before, so obviously our first stop was Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of desaparecidos have marched each week for almost 30 years. Since we visited on July 9th, Argentina Independence Day, there were thousands of people in leftist political groups marching in the Plaza. I’ve never seen such a large protest before, and I was stunned by the sheer amount of people and the diversity of the protesters – young adults, older people, teenagers, mothers with their children. We met several people in the Plaza, including a couple we talked to for almost an hour about the political parties marching, education in the US and Argentina, tango, and more. Like everyone else I’ve met here, they were extremely gracious and welcoming, and I felt like I had known them for many years.

Week 2

I spent my first week with the Committee Against Torture working with the team that receives reports of abuse and torture in prisons. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the number of prisoners and cases that the Committee works with on a daily basis, and how incredibly oppressed the prisoners are here. But we eased our way in by working together on a few cases. First, we uploaded interviews from prisoners into the CPM system so we could flag human rights violations. Then we uploaded the corresponding reports that the Committee’s legal team sent to the courts to resolve each of the violations. The interviews were difficult to read, but they allowed me to better understand the conditions inside the prison. Once I started working on my own, I was able to move through cases faster. It was the first time I felt like I was being productive and making at least some difference in the lives of the prisoners.

This week, I was able to settle into a routine and feel more comfortable with my host family. Then, I received some amazing news – that I have family here in Argentina. On Sunday of this week, I was able to meet some distant cousins (they share my last name, though!) that I never knew existed. It was incredible, and I feel much more connected to Argentina now that I know there is a piece of my family here.