Hernán Reyes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Negotiating Prisoners' Rights: Conversation with Hernan Reyes, Medical Coordinator for Detention-Related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross; 12/2/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Prisoners' Survival Techniques

Of the prisoners whom you have examined over the years and who were there for the wrong reasons, or suffering the worst conditions, what are the elements that tell you which ones will survive and which won't?

Difficult to say. The other day I was asked what form of torture was the worst form of torture. I remember distinctly some political prisoners telling me that for them the worst form of torture was solitary confinement. They said they had been severely beaten, they had been tortured with electricity and other niceties and they said the worst part was being in strict solitary confinement for months on end, for six, eight, nine, twelve months. For them that was much worse, and luckily these political prisoners happened to be very intellectually strong and so they devised methods to cope with that. I think that would be very, very, very difficult.

What sorts of methods do they devise?

There are various methods. One of them had found two or three links of a bicycle chain in his cell. That's all. No mattress, no books of course, nothing. He found two links of a bicycle chain and he told me he spent two whole weeks trying to devise in his mind how to create a machine that would make this kind of link with the articulations in it. He said, "Yes, it sounds futile, but that kept me busy and I had to keep my mind busy." Another, in the same context, explained how he used to sometimes receive an orange from one of the guards, very rarely. And he would start cutting the orange up in the morning and just cut it a little bit and then two hours later take off a little bit, and try to remember when was the last time he had an orange outside, then he would take off the skin on one half. And it would take up the whole day, just trying to peel the orange, and finally at the end of the day he would eat the orange and it would have kept him busy and it would bring back memories. He tried to associate everything he could with that memory of the orange.

Mental games that pass the time away.

Absolutely.

Are religious individuals in prison more likely or just as likely to survive as those that have a political ideology?

I've seen both. I've seen all sorts of religions in prison, and I've also seen prisoners who had no religion and who kept sane. I'm not sure there is a difference there. It's something based on inner strength which can come from religion and can come from other sources.

What other sorts of populations do you find as prisoners who are particularly vulnerable? Women who are the spouses of political actors and so on, are they more vulnerable or are they just as resilient, or more resilient than men?

Women in general -- it again depends on what sort of women. Women political prisoners can be stronger than men in many, many cases. I remember seeing some political prisoners who were actually giving a very rough time to the authorities and the authorities were almost asking us to help them cope with all this internal rebellion, internal resistance, that kept coming back and back and back again despite all the coercion they exerted on these women prisoners. Women can be very tough.

I would say it breaks down in a different way. If a prisoner knows why he's in prison, and I'm talking about political prisoners -- political prisoners expect to be jailed at some time and some of them expect to be tortured. On the other hand, prisoners who are just captured because they are the wrong religion or the wrong ethnic group have no preparation for that, they have a very rough time. So in this case when you have people who are not militant at all but happen to be caught up in circumstances whereby they are thrown into prison, even though they have been less severely tortured than political prisoners, they have a very difficult time coping.

In your article on torture you make the point that sometimes the worst torture can be being blindfolded as you're being struck, and not know where the next blow is coming from. So a lot of this, obviously the blow hurts, but the psychology of not being able to see where the blow is coming and defend yourself, intensifies the problem. So this is really often not just about the scars, the physical signs of what has been done, but also the emotional.

It's both, actually, and I always tell our people not to make a clear distinction between physical torture and psychological torture. Physical torture of course has psychological sequelae and consequences. And psychological torture, even if you don't touch the person, may also have physical consequences. And in this case, the blindfold you mentioned, I don't know if it's the worst form of torture but it's part and parcel of torture, and again, here we have physical and psychological. Psychological of course: you don't know where the blow is coming from, you can't expect it, you can't prepare yourself, and also physical in the sense that you're in that much more tense of a situation. For example, if you have someone who is blindfolded and suspended and someone who is not blindfolded and suspended and you approach that person with an electric prod, if you can see the prod coming you can brace yourself, you can prepare yourself physically. But if you can't see it you can have these spasms which are much more intense. So you have the psychological component and also the physical component. That is why prisoners are blindfolded. We are always told that prisoners are blindfolded so they don't see the guard, not to see the torturer. Of course that's part of it, but it's part of the torture itself, because it has this potentializing effect on the torture.

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