Presidio Modelo (Isle of Youth)

Presidio Model Museum . The young revolutionaries who assaulted the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953 , among whom was the leader of the revolutionary movement, Fidel Castro , were held here in this old prison before their departure for exile in Mexico .


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  • 1 Location
  • 2 History
    • 1 Construction of the prison
    • 2 Objectives
    • 3 Choice of the Isle of Pines to build the Model Presidio
    • 4 Acquisition of land for the construction of the Model Prison
    • 5 Presidio Modelo: existence of other buildings in addition to the current ones
    • 6 What was not built in Presidio Modelo according to the initial project?
    • 7 The Presidio circulars: built according to the panoptic system
    • 8 Budget for its construction
    • 9 Presidio Model: copy of another prison
  • 3 Name of “Model Presidio”
    • 1 Was Presidio actually a model?
    • 2 Was it always called Model Prison?
  • 4 circular las
    • 1 The library of Presidio Modelo
  • 5 Intentions to build the so-called auditorium
  • 6 Distribution of prisoners in circulars
    • 1 Surveillance in circulars
  • 7 Existence in Presidio of a building for the insane
    • 1 The dining room of the Three Thousand Silences
    • 2 The railway line
  • 8 Death of inmates in Presidio Modelo
    • 1 Period in which there were more deaths in Presidio Modelo
    • 2 Death of foreign inmates in Presidio Modelo
    • 3 The elderly and tuberculosis patients in prison
    • 4 The Presidio Modelo Hospital
  • 9 See also
  • 10Fuentes


It is located in the town of Juan Delio Chacón , 4 km east of Nueva Gerona , the capital of Isla de la Juventud ( Cuba ), 4 km west of Bibijagua beach .


Construction of the prison

In October 1925, Mr. Marcos Perera and his assistant Ricardo López were appointed Head of the work , and they arrived on the Island on the 17th of the same month. They were provided with 6 prisoners from the Nueva Gerona prison , plus the necessary guards. With them began the transfer of materials. On October 28, 1925, a group of 50 inmates, 25 soldiers and a lieutenant, were brought from Havana ; thus, the prison labor force was increasing from different prisons in the country; skilled civilian labor was also used and the signature of the American Stell Co.

On February 1, 1926 , President Gerardo Machado inaugurated the start of construction in an official and symbolic act by signing the act of laying the first stone. At the beginning of 1932 the construction was paralyzed due to lack of credit.


It was built to hold common prisoners from 6 months to long sentences (for men only). According to the dictator Gerardo Machado , to “clean up” the Cuban society of delinquency. Here the 24 existing prisons in Cuba were merged with appearances of modernity.

Selection of the Isle of Pines to build the Presidio Modelo

The choice of Isla de Pinos to build the Model Prison was President Gerardo Machado himself ; although the Pinero politician Cecilio Soto Llorca claimed that “privilege” for himself.

Rogelio Zayas-Bazán , Minister of the Interior, in a letter to Machado expresses: «You were not only inspired by the excellent situation of those lands but also by the desire to give color to that corner of Cuban territory… choice of land on the Isle of Pines and in this way contributes to the flourishing of that island».

The foregoing is nothing more than a mockery and an offense against the Cuban people, a supreme act of gossiping for the president and a violation of the agreements of the International Penitentiary Congress that since the beginning of the century prohibited the construction of prisons on islands, considering that the prisoner he would serve a double punishment: the penalty for the crime plus exile.

Acquisition of land for the construction of the Model Prison

It was acquired through forced expropriation and State land (lots 91, 92, 93, 99, 100 and 111, in 1925). (77, 81, 82, 86, 87, and 104 in the year 1927 ). These lands comprised 99.5 caballerias.

Keep in mind that the Presidio Modelo did not only include the current architectural part, today a National Monument, but also an area of ​​162.5 caballerias, a large part dedicated to cultivation and animal husbandry.

Where the National Monument is located today was lot No. 103 known as Finca La Carlota (forcefully expropriated), whose owners were Juana Crisótamo Hernández Bacallao and María Isabel Blanco Hernández . This expropriation was registered in the Court of First Instance of the Judicial District of Isla de Pinos, case No. 57 of October 1925 , Property Registry Folio 227, Volume 95. It was published in the Official Gazette of the Province of Havana , year XXV, edict 242. Havana, Friday, October 23, 1925; protected by Decree No. 595 of May 22, 1907 .

Presidio Modelo: existence of other buildings in addition to the current ones

Playa Paraíso, where the prison pier was.

Next to the bakery, there was the Locomotive House where the 3,800 meters of railway that began in Playa Columbo ( Playa Paraíso ) ended; the home for the elderly and the sanatorium for tuberculosis, a miserable wooden room with 70 beds where the sick slept with practically destroyed lungs.

What was not built in Presidio Modelo according to the initial project?

Construction was stopped: the locutory, the auditorium, 4 circulars, the tunnels or galleries that connected all the buildings, the wall that would surround the entire prison (which was replaced by a pearl mesh perimeter fence) and the construction of the interior bars of the circular cells.

The Presidio circulars: built according to the panoptic system

Construction process of the Model Prison, in the foreground the railway where the materials were transferred

The panopticon is nothing more than a building constructed in such a way that from a given point, its entire interior can be seen; therefore, the case of the Presidio Modelo circulars complies with this principle.

In 1787 the reformer of the Criminal Penal Law Jeremy Bentham visited Russia, there he witnessed a work for a textile factory where the workers worked in a circular area and in the center on a tower a single man (foreman) exercised close surveillance over each one of them. workers all the time.

That same conception and with the same purpose of improving the material and living conditions of the inmates who were locked up in dark and humid prisons in ancient medieval castles was that said English penalist based his projects, which were never put into practice in England ; a little later ( 20th century ) is that Spain and the Netherlands built circular prisons. Later, the Illinois penitentiary circular in the United States emerged , partially built between 1924-1926 .

Budget for its construction

It is a historical speculation that the Government stole half the money from the construction of Presidio Modelo and distortion of reality, although there is no doubt that they were capable of that and much more. It happened that Presidio did not contemplate its construction in the budget plan. On August 31, 1925 , a portion consisting of 0.25 million pesos was approved and so on until an approximate cost of 2.5 million. On January 31, 1932 , the work was paralyzed due to lack of budget.

Captain Castells who commanded the Presidio from May 25, 1928 until the fall of Machado on August 12, 1933 had many defects, but he could never be accused of an act of theft or corruption, in that he was clean.

Presidio Modelo: copy of another prison

Commander Rogerio Zayas-Bazán visited several prisons in the United States in 1925 at the direction of President Machado. and he was impressed with the one in Jolliet (in the state of Illinois), which is why the engineer César Guerra was given the task of drawing up the project for said prison. There were several projects and modifications, the truth is that the construction was approximately 50% relative to the Illinois jail when it stopped in 1932 . However, it had the same capacity for 5,000 prisoners (instead of having one prisoner per cell, there were two). Due to the foregoing, Presidio Modelo is not a faithful copy of the prison already mentioned, but rather an adulterated copy.

Name of “Model Prison”

According to the Government, the prisoner would be subject to a reeducation plan attended by a body of jurists, pedagogues, psychologists, doctors, etc., in such a way that the prison would function as an anthropological laboratory without injustice or fear to return the prisoner fully rehabilitated to society. “Model Prison” should rest on the basis of pure human piety, with rational and scientific methods. The model name also responded to the new type of architecture and the best accommodation conditions.

Was Presidio actually a model?

The intention was very good, but divorced from the action. He was a model of crimes, abuse, humiliation, humiliation. He became a “man-crushing machine.” It was the model of torture, inclemency, ignominy, terror, revenge and torment, where vice and corruption were hidden within the walls and where the prisoners rigorously suffered the nightmare of such an unfortunate place. Presidio Modelo was the extreme of pain, severity and injustice, where the convict away from home remained in a distant land, isolated, exiled and plunged into martyrdom.

Was it always called Presidio Modelo?

Officially there was a name change in 1938 , given the new Social Defense Code it was called the National Prison for Men. “The simple change of name does not change the reality of the Prison, violence, corruption, sexual abuse, gangsterism, death, extortion, gambling, alcoholism , etc. worsen. Presidio sinks deeper and deeper into demoralization and indiscipline, despite the fact that the town has continued to call it by its initial name: Presidio Modelo.


Modelo Presidium

The Model Prison was inaugurated on July 30 , 1973 . It was declared a National Monument in October 1978 . It has an area of ​​400,000  with 34 objects of works (buildings), among all these the circular ones that are five are erected and distinguished as imposing symbols (four that were dedicated to the confinement of prisoners and one dedicated to a dining room with capacity for 3,000 diners). Each circular is 30 m high, 53 m in diameter and has 455 cells (with two prisoners per cell, which makes a capacity of 930 each), 6 floors, so it is ascended by two marble stairs, the ceilings are of fiber cement supported by steel structures without central support. Each circular has a watchtower in the center that is reached by a 30m long tunnel.

The Presidio Modelo Library

It was located in the Administration Building (today the Palace of Pioneers) and with a good number of books. The first ones are due to the collection made by Dr. Isabel Morandeira de Guerra, who collaborated attending to the identification of her with the work of improvement of the inmates. It was intended to be called “The City of Books”. Who would want to read after a beating, the naked confinement in the cells, a filthy meal, or after returning from forced labor in the quarries or the swamps? What an irony to call Presidio Modelo like that! Why not call it Crime City? Wouldn’t it be a mockery what was proposed or intended with this library by saying that the inmates from seven at night, the time they retire to their cells, until nine o’clock they can acquire the books and read comfortably in their room , making fruitful use of time, educating yourself and improving your spirit to find in reading the noblest oasis of peace and good? As if that were not enough, they call the cells a room and speak of comfort in them, when in reality the prisoner was subjected to extreme psychological pressure, stalking, danger and threats from murderers and rapists.

Intentions to build the so-called auditorium

There was an intention and project to build it, it would be built as an area of ​​two thousand five hundred square meters. Its show room would be the same as an American theater, with a very wide platform and balconies like in the modern coliseums of the time. It would have capacity for three thousand people, school classrooms for teaching inmates, a conference room, a movie theater and a religious chapel.

Distribution of prisoners in circulars

The distribution underwent frequent changes according to the characteristics and sanction to the prisoner, throughout the history of Presidio.

For example, at the beginning it turned out that in circular No. 1 those with regular behavior were located, circular No. 2 was destined for observation, circular No. 3 for passive pederasts and No. 4 for handsome men and active pederasts. This circular in the 50’s was intended for political prisoners.

Surveillance in the circulars

The surveillance in the circulars was extreme and with very few guards. A guard entered through the circular tunnel and stood in the central tower, which ends at its highest part with a sentry box, in such a way that the guard is not observed by the inmates, nor do they know when he is observing them ( due to the form of said construction); the convicts also do not know when the changing of the guard occurs, so it is a vigilance always alert under the hidden gaze and the machine gun ready to lean out and shoot in any situation. There was a guard at the entrance door and we must not fail to mention that for each floor there were three members of the Principals Commission (known murderers, armed with a knife, a machete and an awl, who were in charge of maintaining with their oppression,

Existence in Presidio of a building for the insane

Pavilion No. 2 was not only chosen for this purpose, but also for allegedly insane, elderly, disabled and politicians. There they locked up Pablo de La Torriente Brau , Raúl Roa García , Juan Marinello Vidaurreta , Aracelio Iglesias and other brave combatants. Horrendous crimes and torture were committed in that pavilion. It was also used when some head of the Principals Commission wanted to force a young prisoner into sexual abuse and he did not accept, so he was subjected to terrible torture until he was killed. Pablo de la Torriente Brau called this place “the most perfidious of the ravines of terror”.

The dining room of the Three Thousand Silences

This is how Pablo de La Torriente Brau called it , in his book Presidio Modelo. This dining room seats 3,000 people. You had to be absolutely silent because at the slightest noise they lifted the prisoner up and took him directly to the punishment cell, where he remained completely naked for 9 days on bread and water. When a prisoner was taken out of the dining room, the principals told him: drive around fotingo without brake! Goodbye buchipluma! Goodbye mouth without jaw!

The dining room was also used to give masses, conferences, receive visitors, listen to lists of pardons and reduce sentences.

the railway line

There was a line of 3800 m. It was not in the project, but was established to transport building materials from Playa Columbo ( Paradise Beach ) to the Presidio. The road ran from the nearby marble factory with branches to the quarry and La Yana and was also used for the transfer of prisoners.

Death of inmates in Presidio Modelo

The first death occurs on April 9, 1926 . This evil took hold of the prison and according to research by museologist Julio César González , between 1926 and 1959 , 763 deaths have been verified through death certificates, many in provoked ways: strangled, drowned in swamps, drowned in toilets, beaten, tortured, poisoned, lethal injection, provoked accidents, brawls, application of the flight law, pushed from the high floors of the circulars, undermined by tuberculosis and syphilis, etc. The investigation into the deaths in Presidio Modelo is still ongoing, so this number is not definitive. The youngest prisoner to die there was a 17-year-old namedEnrique Márquez Pérez and the oldest, 106 years old, was called Teofilo Valdés Maza .

The death toll will never be clear, because there was a lot of replay, concealment and incineration of documents, etc.

According to existing data, 4.6% of the prison population died annually. Otherwise almost all the deaths were provoked. For example; the inmate Cecilio Morales Marquinet , one of those chosen by the prison to control the discipline, became the principal and one of the worst murderers, in just two years he had killed 92 inmates; that is, he killed an inmate per week on average.

Period in which there were more deaths in Presidio Modelo

The period in which there were more deaths in Presidio Modelo was the Machadato (1925-1933).

According to researchers Julio César González Laureiro and Francisco García González, 430 prisoners died during this period: 192 whites, 150 blacks, 86 mestizos and 2 whose race is not recorded in the documents consulted.

The causes established in the death certificates show that 210 deaths occurred in violent circumstances: “gunshot wound to the head”, “gunshot wound to the lung”, “crushing”.

In relation to the number of admissions to the Model Prison at that stage, the dead represent approximately 10% of the prison population.

Death of foreign inmates in Presidio Modelo

The law and criminal prosecution made no distinction between Cubans and foreigners. From 1928 to 1933, during the Castellato, 106 foreigners from more than 20 countries died; which is equivalent to 35 dead foreigners annually. Extremely high number.

The elderly and tuberculosis patients in prison

Presidio Modelo was severe, rigorous, implacable, and it was not convenient for the Government to return these individuals to society, since they were considered a nuisance. Here there was a considerable number of elderly, sick and physically handicapped men who contributed nothing; they were separated and within the same asylum cells were created for the elderly who, due to their stunted or decrepit state, caused a lot of inconvenience.

The Presidio Modelo Hospital

It could be called a hospital or also a “human slaughterhouse” for the many crimes, for the many lives taken at the expense of the inmates’ health.

The hospital was located in pavilion No. 1, which is today the Museum, about 80 meters from the circulars; its construction is all of reinforced concrete and an area of ​​four thousand five square meters, its layout forms four large patios. About two hundred sick people could be accommodated in this building.

On February 12, 1954, the young people of the Centennial Generation staged an act full of heroism in this hospital. Batista was visiting the prison and when he passed behind the hospital, the moncadistas sang the July 26 March for him.

This facility had the following departments:

  • Office of the Medical Director (now Fidel’s cell).
  • workshops
  • equipment department
  • dental cabinet
  • X-ray cabinet
  • Operations room
  • post operation room
  • morgue room
  • First aid kits and health services for different diseases.


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