Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Blog Post 3

My last two weeks in Argentina were spent with the committee against torture. During weeks 5 and 6, I visited four prisons in the Florencio Varela and Lomas de Zamora complexes with the Unidad Temática de Intervenciones Complejas (Complex Interventions Unit of the Committee Against Torture). This specific unit of the CPM focuses on complex cases relating to extreme isolation, health issues, and mental health issues.

On week 5, when I visited the Florencio Varela complexes, there was one common aspect to all of the inmates we interviewed—they had all had a lack of substantial medical assistance within the prison system. The first male we interviewed on our trip to Varela claimed he had swallowed a razor blade in order to receive his prescribed medicine. During our interview, he seemed to be in distress about his lack of medicine. “I’m not asking for my medicine because I’m an addict, I am asking for it because I need it to survive,” he stated. He showed us self-inflicted cuts on his arms. This case shows just how inadequate the medical systems are within the Buenos Aires prisons. Inmates feel the need to go to extremes to get the medical attention they need, going as far as putting their lives at risk. A few days later, I overheard one of the leaders of the UTIC team speaking to this same inmate on the phone. The inmate was once again threatening to self-harm, the UTIC member tried to calm him down and reassure him that they were trying their best to present his habeas corpus. The patience with which the UTIC member managed this situation was admirable and showed the close connection that the team has with each of their cases.

Another example of the prison system’s inadequate medical system is that related to the process of setting up appointments for inmates. Another inmate from Varela claimed that SPB officers, the correctional officers, had scheduled an appointment for him to get x-rays for his leg; however, they failed to mention to him that he had a appointment. He was in a morning bible study class when they called him to get on the bus for his appointment. He claimed that he quickly ran to his room to get some things he needed, taking no more that 5 minutes. When he met with the SPB officers to leave for his appointment, they had him sign a paper stating that he had willingly decided not to attend said appointment. He signed the papers because the officers gave him an attitude—he said their demeanor made him think that if he refused to sign, they would beat him. Thus, he missed his appointment and had to continue dealing with sharp pain in his leg. This case demonstrates SPB’s general carelessness regarding the wellbeing of the inmates. They purposely allowed this inmate to miss his appointment and showed that they do not care that an inmate had to deal with extreme discomfort as a result of their negligence.

On week 6, I visited the last prison of the trip at UP 40 in Lomas de Zamora. This prison was co-ed, separated between male and female complexes. Here, I visited a woman who had been in solitary confinement (SAC) over a year. She claimed the last time she was in the general population area of a prison was in November 2020 in the Magdalena complex. She had remained in SAC partially due to constant transfers from prison to prison. Her cell had one small window that allowed little light to shine through, a concrete latrine covered by a piece of cardboard to avoid smells and bugs, and a blanket covering a large opening on the bottom part of the metal cell door to prevent rats from coming into the cell. She claimed that she was only allowed one hour outside of her cell to shower, use the patio, and clean. The CPM considers the use of SAC as a human right violation, and the UTIC team arranged to present this woman’s case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because of her prolonged period in SAC.

Working with UTIC the last few weeks at the CPM allowed me to see just how much the team cares about each of their cases and the people they are filing motions for. They have a more personal connection with the inmates because of the complexity of their cases, and they take the time to listen to the needs of the inmates and suggest the best course of action. Their work goes beyond the in-person interviews because they have contact with many of their cases daily as the inmates keep them updated with changes to their lives. Overall, this experience further emphasized the importance of choosing a career that you are passionate about. Every day, I looked forward to going into the office because I knew that the work I was doing, even if it was something simple like translating or uploading documents to a server, was contributing to improving the lives of others.

The outside of UP 23, one of the many prisons in the Florencio Varela complex. We visited three out of the four units in the Florencio Varela area. These prisons are all close to one another.
The outside of the prison’s hospital unit outside of UP 23. This healthcare system serves inmates that need quick hospital work such as x-rays.
The inside of UP 40. The inside of the complex is split into the men’s region (left) and the women’s region (right).
The inside of a SAC cell in UP 40. The cardboard is used to prevent smells from the latrine and to keep out insects. The average SAC cell measures about 3 by 3 meters—they are built to hold one person, but, because of overpopulation in the prison system, in some cases may hold up to 4 or 5 people.
Laina, Giselle, Malena, Astrid, and Emmy in the William & Mary aula at the CPM on our last workday of the trip.

Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Post #2

Identifying Human Rights Violations in the Buenos Aires Province

On week three we worked with the reception team uploading interviews and habeas corpus to the CPM’s SISCOTT system. We read the interviews and identified the human rights violations that were brought up during the team’s visit with each prisoner. During this part of the internship, I discovered that many incidents that are common in prisons, including American ones, are human rights violations. For example, placing a prisoner in a unit that prevents them from having a relationship with their family and solitary confinement are common situations that violate the prisoner’s human rights.

One of the most common violations was lack of medical attention and medication on behalf of the health unit of the prisons. I was able to sit in on interviews with PICC on week four. Both women I interviewed had serious ongoing health issues. The interview process was an emotional experience because it was frustrating to hear that after multiple interventions on behalf of the CPM, the women were still struggling to receive the medical attention they needed. The lack of proper attention anguished both women; they both cried during the interview. This was difficult to watch because, while it’s common to villainize and dehumanize people in prison, hearing the women talk about their lack of medications and ability to get appointments and see their families humanizes them again. They claimed that the health unit used ibuprofen to solve everyone’s health issues, something we heard during our first prison visit to the university center at UP 1.

One of the women I interviewed had a terminal illness called Osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that was deteriorating her skull. She is awaiting her trial, which is programed for the year 2023. This means that she is in prison with a terminal illness without having a sentence. I admire the approach my supervisor, lawyer Augusto Infante, took during the interview because he managed to help the woman look for the good in her situation. He explained that his goal was to help her spend the time before her trial at home with her family. Because her illness is terminal, for Augusto and the CPM it is unjustified that this woman spend the last part of her life in prison, especially since she has neither been proven guilty nor given a sentence.

Something that shocked me both while sitting in on interviews and reading them was that most of the people imprisoned had not been tried and therefore had no sentence. In one case, two sisters were arrested at their aunt’s house because they were there when police ambushed the house. Because they were the only ones in the house at the time of the ambush, they were taken in as suspects of illicit drug trafficking even though they were not the people the police were after. The two sisters were placed in “preventative prison” with their children, one of them having gone into labor soon after being arrested, because the judge claimed they were a flight risk.

Many prisoners are in a similar situation; however most of the people who the justice system claims are at risk of fleeing if set free to await trial do not have the means to actually flee. Most people are working class citizens with little resources—fleeing is not an option for them. Preventative prison seems more like a tactic used by the SPB and justice system to keep people imprisoned. It is frustrating to hear that many people have been in prison for years not having had a trial.

These days that we have spent at the prisons and identifying human rights violations, I have gone home feeling fulfilled because I feel like I am doing something that is genuinely helping others. The work done by the teams at the CPM is helpful to many people and knowing that I am contributing to the effort (even if it is just a small amount in comparison to the work the team does as a whole) makes me feel grateful to be a part of such a great team of people.

The outside of UP (Unidad Penitenciaria/Prison Unit) Number 1 in Lisandro Olmos. This is one of the most populated prisons in Argentina. UP 1 was the first prison we visited—we interviewed the university students at the prison.
Poster found outside of Ex-ESMA that says “Nunca Mas” (Never Again). We visited the site in between weeks three and four. The tour we took allowed us to understand how and why state security forces target certain groups. This was useful information to us because we saw that some groups of Argentines make up more portions of the prison population than others, suggesting that the system continues to target certain groups of people.

Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Week 1

Arriving in Argentina: History and Political Mobilizations

Our group’s bonding started as soon as we met up at the Richmond International Airport on July 2nd: Emmy Giacoia, Astrid Garcia, Laina Lomont, and I travelled on the same flights to Buenos Aires. From our previous experience travelling to Spain and Gibraltar together as part of an embedded program with Professor Francie Cate-Arries, Emmy, Astrid, and I knew just how important our time at the airport can be for creating a bond in groups travelling together. The three of us quickly bonded with Laina, who we were meeting for the first time. Time flew by at our layover in New York as we shared stories of William & Mary, airport horrors from our previous Spain trip, and our experience in Hispanic Studies.

Once we arrived in La Plata, our group was split up and Emmy and I went to Eliana Bacci’s house where we were greeted by Eliana and two W&M students, Zoha and Ramona, who were spending the semester in La Plata. Before we could settle down in our room, Eliana told us we were having family lunch at her sister’s house. The first lunch is memorable because we met not only our host family, but their extended family. Even though at the time it was extremely overwhelming to meet so many new people, I will always be grateful that Eliana was so welcoming and inclusive from the start of our stay with her.

Our first week at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) started the very next day. Like Eliana, Malena and Diego were equally as inviting and allowed us to feel part of the CPM team from the beginning. The first week, we explored the history of the CPM and Argentine dictatorships. I had never studied Argentina in depth, but I quickly found myself captivated by the stories we were hearing from the team at the CPM and the guests that they brought in to speak.

Specifically, I remember hearing the stories of two women who had family members that were disappeared during the last dictatorship. I appreciated how they emphasized that people who were disappeared cannot be assumed dead—until evidence is found, the disappeared are assumed to be alive. One of the speakers shared that many of the women disappeared by officials were pregnant and their children were also disappeared. That was very impactful, since they also noted that many of the children are still missing today. What makes this so moving is the fact that it all happened so recently, and people are still trying to cope with the trauma and grief of losing their loved ones without an explanation.

Although it is in a completely different context, I saw parallels in the stories of the disappeared in Argentina in my own research on femicidio in Mexico. Just as family investigation and unity played, and keeps playing, an important role in Argentina through organizations like the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, families play an important role in getting justice for victims of femicidio because of the impunity given to their perpetrators and the lack of investigation by government and security forces.

During our first weekend in Argentina, the group took a trip to Buenos Aires. We visited Plaza de Mayo and spontaneously became part of a protest. When we first arrived at the plaza, the space was calm with a few tourists dispersed throughout the area. As we were leaving, we heard drums in the distance and saw a group of people walking toward us. We stopped and observed what was happening around us. What we saw was powerful: multiple left-wing organizations were coming together at the plaza—each organization came out of a different street leading up to the plaza and met in the middle. The political mobilization was thrilling. It was, without a doubt, the liveliest mobilization I have ever been a part of. We ended up staying at the plaza for part of the event. There, we met a couple named Wally and Monica; I believe both were professors, and they explained a bit about the history of mobilization and politics in Argentina to us.

Two things I discovered these first few weeks: 1) I’m starting to love Argentina and 2) drums should be more widely incorporated in protests in the United States.

Giselle, Emmy, Laina, and Astrid at the JFK Airport patiently waiting for their flight to Buenos Aires.
All five of us in Buenos Aires
The political organizations met in the middle of Plaza de Mayo.
The group of protesters we saw as we were preparing to leave Plaza de Mayo.
The group of protesters we saw as we were preparing to leave Plaza de Mayo.