Astrid Garcia ’23 – Post #3


The last two weeks taught me that the CPM’s Committee Against Torture is a vital mechanism in enacting change within a static and unjust prison system.

UP 28, Magdalena
UP 28, Magdalena: worker’s pavilion

During the fifth week, I accompanied the inspections and complex cases teams to different penitentiary units to conduct interviews. The first penitentiary unit I visited, with the inspections team, was UP 28 in Magdalena. There, we conducted interviews in SAC (solitary confinement), pavilion 4 (the worker’s pavilion), and the holding cell also known as the “leonera” or lion’s cell. SAC is grossly known as “buzones” or the mailbox. The reason behind this name is that the cell door has a slot at the bottom that allows the SPB to give the detainees food and medicine. In SAC, I assisted the director of the Committee Against Torture in interviewing four inmates who were suffering from a series of life-threatening and communicable diseases. The detainee who had been in SAC the longest had not left his cell in over a month, nor did he have access to the patio or the showers. When I was leaving SAC, I noticed the detainees throwing items such as sugar and yerba mate through the slots in the cell. I found this peculiar because they devised a contraption known as “the paloma” (the dove) built out of tied rags. This device was a symbol of survival within SAC. In the worker’s pavilion, detainees seemed to be “better off” and had greater access to amenities such as the showers and kitchen area. Here, we interviewed detainees who largely needed contact with their counsel. In the lion’s cage, three detainees were being processed while living in conditions of squalor. The holding cell was dimly lit, there were oranges (the detainees’ food) on the floor, and cardboard boxes for them to sleep on.

The most unpleasant encounter I experienced during this inspection was the interaction between the director of inspections and one of the penitentiary unit’s nurses in the health wing. Throughout our encounter with the nurse, I witnessed the corruption within the unit’s health system. There was blatant mismanagement of records that led to the detainees going without necessary medication and medical attention. The nurse mansplained the situation, which the director was clearly aware of, and rudely spoke over her and another interviewer, all whilst avoiding answering the director’s questions to save face. This prison visit was difficult to endure but the inspections team made it as good of an experience as possible by encouraging me and another William and Mary student throughout the day.

Two days later, I returned to UP 28, where I accompanied the complex cases team to conduct an interview in the health wing and follow up on some of the inspection team cases. I was unable to enter the interview with a detainee because of the risk of transmittable diseases. Later that day, we encountered the same nurse who had been rude; however, he had answers to our questions this time. I was happy to learn that two of the detainees I helped interview had received their medication, and one had been transferred to another penitentiary unit closer to his family. After learning about the outcome of these cases, I realized that the Committee Against Torture’s presence causes changes to occur.

UP 40, Lomas de Zamora: This unit is a mixed-gender unit. In the front of this picture, the women’s wing can be seen

During the last week, I went to UP 40 in Lomas de Zamora to follow up with some detainees monitored by the complex cases teams. This was a smooth prison visit. For the remainder of the week I, along with two other William and Mary students, helped the inspections and complex cases team find revisions in the new Istanbul protocol that has only been released in English by the United Nations.

The last day of my internship was bittersweet. Since the start of the program, I felt welcomed by the CPM staff and made to feel like a member of their staff. I was sad to part ways with many staffers who were always receptive to my endless questions. Feeling that way, in the end, represented the close bond I had created with the CPM and showed the success of this pilot program. I was sad to say goodbye to Argentina, but after this experience, I know this will not be the last time I visit.

Astrid Garcia ’23 – Weeks 3 & 4

The third and fourth weeks represented a period of growth for me. During this middle phase of the internship, I learned about the various injustices committed against people deprived of their liberty and was able to witness it first-hand. 

During the second week, I continued working with the team that interviews victims. The CPM’s committee against torture mechanisms has various teams throughout the Buenos Aires Province that interview detainees in prisons further away from the Capital and La Plata. These teams submitted their interviews which have to be loaded onto a greater database. This week, I worked independently on loading cases onto the CPM’s committee against torture’s online database. This task allowed me to identify the different forms of torture detainees face throughout their time in Buenos Aires’ penitentiary units. Although there are many penitentiary units scattered throughout the Buenos Aires province, I realize that many of the problems detainees face are congruous. The work I conducted during the third week was essential because it gave me a greater understanding of the problems detainees face daily. I also learned specific terminology which I quickly encountered during the fourth week. 

The beginning of the fourth week marked the beginning of joining both the inspections and complex cases teams in conducting interviews in different penitentiary units. Early on, I realized that working with the team that interviews victims was fundamental work that allowed me to understand the violations most detainees face. This week I accompanied the inspections team to penitentiary unit 1, and the complex cases team to penitentiary unit 33. 

With the inspections team, I joined them in interviewing detainees in the unit’s college center. There, the detainees work to complete various college degrees. Some of the detainees pursue longer careers such as law, whereas others were working towards getting their secondary school degrees. This was a unique experience because I did not expect to see the level of organization the detainees had in completing careers while deprived of their liberty. Upon speaking with a detainee, I learned about a successful case where a detainee completed his law degree and upon his release, about 6 months ago, he was able to find a job as a lawyer. This story seemed to give them more reason to work harder so that when they leave prison, they too can find a job. However, pursuing a college degree while in prison also exposes them to prejudice. I spoke to a detainee who left the prison to take an exam. He expressed that it was a very traumatizing experience because he was chained until he got to the university, and there when they realized he was a prisoner, he faced discrimination. This experience taught me a lot about the battle detainees face in order to pursue college degrees.

With the complex cases team, I accompanied them to interview two sisters in penitentiary unit 33. There, women are able to keep their children with them until the age of 5. During the first week when teams were presenting their work, they mentioned the fact that women can have their children with them. This subject intrigued me, and I realized that this was something I wanted to do more work with. I thought that prison was not a suitable place for children to grow up in during their most formative years. However, upon talking to both sisters, I realized that having their children gave them greater sanity than other prisoners who have little to no familial relations. Their children were also very happy being with their mothers because they were able to create a bond with them, had access to the patio and plazas during the day, and could leave the prison with other family members for weeks on end. Being able to join this team for this interview changed my perspective because talking to and hearing the sisters’ stories is different than reading their official law documents. 

During this last week, I was grateful to join both groups. I felt fulfilled joining these groups in their tasks because they are working with real people who have fallen victim to the violence perpetrated by the State.

Penitentiary Unit 1. The structure of this prison reminded me of Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon. There is a watch tower in the middle, known as “el tanque” or “the tank” that watched over the unit’s pavilions. Here, the SPB (penitentiary unit officers) can see the detainees without being seen themselves. This reinforces the idea of total control and dominance over people deprived of their liberty. (Photo credit: Emmy Giacoia)
This is a different angle that shows “el tanque” looming over the prison.
“El tanque” can be seen from different angles. It is a symbol of this prison and of the control over people deprived of their liberty.

Astrid Garcia ’23 – Week 1

Upon arriving in Argentina, I immediately knew that I would be challenged to learn more about the Spanish language and the country’s complex history, one that continues to define society, politics, and memory. As a history major, I have always preferred learning about events and people first-hand. Coming to a country still emerging from the shadows of a dictatorship has given me a first-hand account unlike any other I have experienced. Before departing for Argentina, I thought I had a strong understanding of its 1976-1983 dictatorship; however, talking to people who lived through the dictatorship has allowed me to learn more.

During the first week, members of the CPM introduced us to two guest speakers who shared their experiences during the dictatorship; both were sisters of individuals who had been kidnapped and disappeared during the dictatorship. Silvia Fontana’s account struck me the most. She told the story of how her sister, Lili, had been taken from their home while she was pregnant. The Fontana family did not give up searching for both Lili and her son, who was appropriated by a military family. What fascinated me was the relentlessness of the Fontana family in their search for Lili’s son, whom they found 27 years after his birth. This search, to me, demonstrated the desire to return their identities to the children who had been appropriated. These kinds of stories allowed me to put the history of the dictatorship into context while simultaneously understanding how it continues to impact Argentine society.

Additionally, the end of the first week signaled the beginning of my decision to work with the Committee Against Torture. Before I arrived in Argentina, I had a different understanding of what torture was, what it entailed, and by whom it was perpetrated. While working with this team, I have learned that torture against people deprived of their freedom is perpetrated by a system of cruelty supported by the State that is designed to cause suffering. This internship has opened my mind to a more holistic definition of torture and the physical, mental, and emotional impact it has on imprisoned individuals. Although this internship focuses on Argentine prisons in the Buenos Aires Province, many of the violations against individuals here also occur in the United States.

During the second week, I started working with the team that interviews victims, and their family members, who suffer from torture in penitentiary units. I was able to read about the conditions in which imprisoned people live and how these constitute direct violations of their rights, feeding the system of cruelty they find themselves in. This week, I familiarized myself with a woman’s case who experienced torture in all the penitentiary units where she was detained. This case helped me contextualize the role gender plays in the prison system. Women and trans individuals face additional violations against them. Early on this week, I realized that the topic of pregnant women and women with children in prisons highly interested me because they were complex cases that required greater attention. Working with this team has been a rewarding experience because it has allowed me to learn more about what it means to fight for human rights within systems designed to perpetuate suffering.

Outside of working with the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria, in my first weeks here I was presented with the deep and vibrant culture of political activism. On my first trip to Buenos Aires, which also happened to be on Argentine Independence Day (July 9), I noticed the political mobilization of multiple groups in the Plaza de Mayo who were fighting for the same rights. While witnessing this march, I soon realized that these groups came together in the nation’s capital from many southern cities and other places around the country. What left me most in awe was the involvement of family units, including young children, that came together to voice their concerns, and the presence of music which made the march seem like a celebration of their fight. I was surprised, yet thrilled, to see this because it is not something that occurs much in the United States. Witnessing this march allowed me to appreciate Argentine political culture even more.

This picture was taken on the first weekend we went to Buenos Aires in front of the Juan Domingo Peron statue. (From left to right: Giselle Figueroa, Astrid Garcia, Daniel Posthumous, Laina Lomont, Emmy Giacoia)
This picture was taken in Plaza Mayo during the first weekend we went to Buenos Aires. The picture shows different political groups uniting as one in a march to fight for a common cause: “enough of adjustment, plundering, extractivism, and dependence. The debt is with the people and nature!”
This picture was taken at the CPM’s Museum of Art and Memory. It depicts the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo marching to demand answers about their disappeared children and appropriated grandchildren.
This picture was taken at the CPM’s Museum of Art and Memory. It shows two very important factors of Argentine culture and identity: the handkerchief used by the mothers and grandmothers and Plaza de Mayo and writing that declares the Falkland Islands as being inherently Argentine.
This picture was taken in Plaza Mayo during the first weekend we went to Buenos Aires. The picture shows different political groups preparing for a march in the Plaza de Mayo. It was a unique experience to witness the preparations by different groups before the entire Plaza de Mayo was filled with people demanding justice.