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MAXIMUM INSECURITY

OUTSPOKEN CONS CLASH WITH FLORENCE OFFICIALS OVER RACE, RELIGION--AND SPEAKING FRENCH.

Levasseur's treatment seems mild, though, compared with that alleged by David Merritt, a litigious inmate who was sent to ADX from the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, in mid-October--three weeks into a hunger strike that had left him unable to walk.

Merritt, a New York native who is serving a 23-year sentence for bank robbery and related charges, has filed lawsuits against BOP officials from California to Pennsylvania, alleging poor dental care, racial and religious discrimination (Merritt is black and Jewish) and retaliation against him for being a "writ writer." His troubles in the system apparently began after a 1985 escape from a county courthouse in Georgia; after his capture, Merritt claims, he cooperated in the prosecution of the jailers who released him and was subsequently branded an informer. By his own account, he has since been the target of more than 25 "racial assaults" by staff and other inmates, including an incident last year at Marion in which two other inmates used wire clippers to cut through recreation cages to get to him.

"They let the word out that this is a black Jew snitch," says Martin Hochberg, honorary chairman of the International Coalition for Jewish Prisoner Services, an information and referral service sponsored by B'nai B'rith. "He's had several attempts on his life."

Although the coalition is not supposed to function as a prisoner advocacy group, Hochberg and regional chair Sid Kleiner have become deeply involved in Merritt's case. Both men say they're outraged by Merritt's treatment and the lack of response from BOP administrators to their inquiries about his status.

"They evade and avoid," complains Kleiner. "Usually, I don't even get the courtesy of a response. If I do, they tell me David is where he belongs. But he's supposed to be in a medical facility when he's on a hunger strike."

In a lawsuit filed in Denver against BOP director Kathleen Hawk, regional head Patrick Kane and ADX warden Bill Story, Merritt states that he began his hunger strike after guards at Marion assaulted him for filing a previous lawsuit. Although a doctor who examined him recommended that he be hospitalized, he was sent to ADX instead--where, he claims, he has again been assaulted by guards, force-fed through a tube in his nose and threatened with further punishment if he doesn't abandon his hunger strike.

BOP officials have consistently denied any mistreatment of Merritt. Winn confirms that Merritt "has declared himself to be on a hunger strike" but declines to provide any other details about his situation, citing the pending litigation. "Physically, he is doing okay," Winn insists. Merritt's transfer to ADX was not the result of any lawsuit or the hunger strike, he adds, but because of "his past history of violence in the system and institutional misconduct."

Hochberg describes Merritt as a nonviolent, first-time offender who has simply tried to defend himself after authorities refused to protect him. "I've been dealing with prisoners for years, and I'm usually quite skeptical of their claims," he says. "But I don't find anything David has written to me to be outlandish. The fact is, he's been attacked over and over--and he gets an infraction for it every time."

Kleiner, an ex-offender himself, points to affidavits filed by more than a dozen other prisoners supporting Merritt's claims of abuse. "I would have been very skeptical of this whole business if I hadn't seen the documentation," he says.

Yet prisoners rarely make good witnesses in court. One of Merritt's testimonials was provided by convicted bank robber Dewey Baker, who surfaced as an "alternate suspect" in the middle of the nationally televised 1992 Denver trial of James King for the murder of four unarmed United Bank guards. Baker reportedly confessed to the crime at least twice and then recanted both confessions; King was acquitted, and the murders remain unsolved.

Winn says Merritt is receiving proper medical attention, but Kleiner counters that the primary care consists of "diesel therapy"--the inmates' term for the federal practice of shifting troublemakers from prison to prison to sever their ties with outside supporters.

"Months ago David told me he wanted a transfer to Florence," Kleiner says. "I said, `Don't do it.' Now he says I was right, that it's worse there than it was at Marion.

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