part 2 of 2
Oscar Lopez Rivera arrived at ADX in January. He says his first two months there were the hardest time he's ever done.
At first he was aware of only three other prisoners on his tier; two of them he recognized from Marion. Both had histories of mental problems. One sang and shouted obscenities for hours every morning. The other soon disappeared into segregation.
The dry air gave Lopez Rivera nosebleeds. Seemingly small grievances--the guards' refusal to allow him small scissors to trim his nosehairs or a brush to clean the toilet--loomed large in his mind. But the worst was the nightly routine of being awakened repeatedly, relentlessly, by the guards making their rounds.
"I haven't experienced anything like that since I was in Vietnam," he says. "There were counts every half hour, people knocking on the door and putting a flashlight in your eyes. You could hear the doors sliding back and forth, guys talking on their radios, all sorts of noise."
After weeks of scant sleep, it became difficult to concentrate. He'd try to read only to find himself drifting, unable to absorb a thing. He felt flushed, or so chilled that he'd wrap himself in blankets in the middle of the day.
In February a network of prison activists, including a support group for Puerto Rican independentistas like Lopez Rivera, launched a phone-in campaign to protest the rousting of unconscious prisoners. The nightly counts have since slacked off. Vanyur says the problem wasn't the frequent rounds--which were conducted hourly, not every half hour, he insists--but the overall noise level, and he says that guards have since learned to operate the doors more quietly.
"When we opened, we took a very hard stance in terms of security measures," he says. "Once we realized it was having an impact on the quality of life of the inmates, we made substantial changes."
Because of his record of more than five years of good behavior within BOP, Lopez Rivera was recently moved to ADX's intermediate unit--the first of three "step-down units" that inmates must go through before they're allowed to transfer to another prison. He spends more time outside of his cell now and even eats with other prisoners on the range. "It's a big difference," he admits. "We're social beings, and the need for conversation is crucial."
At the same time, the 52-year-old activist is guarded about his prospects for completing the program. He's been up and down the federal system for years--along with fourteen other independentistas, men and women whose cause has largely been buried inside prison walls.
The government describes Lopez Rivera as one of the leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican group linked to more than a hundred bombings and five deaths in the Seventies. Lopez Rivera will neither confirm nor deny his affiliation with FALN and disowns any personal involvement in the bombing deaths. At the same time, he admits that his experiences in Vietnam and as a community organizer in Chicago drew him to the Puerto Rican independence movement, and he defends his right, "as a colonial subject," to attempt to overthrow United States rule over his native island.
"By international law, a colonized people has the right to fight against colonialism by any means necessary, including the use of force," he says.
Like most of the FALN defendants, Lopez Rivera considers himself a prisoner of war--a stance that has had drastic consequences for his journey through the federal prison system. "When we go to trial, we don't defend ourselves," he explains, "so, automatically, we get the maximum sentence on every charge we face."
Arrested in 1981 and sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy, Lopez Rivera was shipped to Leavenworth. He'd been there only a couple of weeks, he says, when prison officials told him he was "Marion material." "They were looking for an excuse to send me to Marion," he says, "and they found it."
The "excuse," as he puts it, turned out to be an alleged escape plot involving guns, explosives and a helicopter. Lopez Rivera insists there was no helicopter and no plot, only an informer's fabrications. "I was more naive than I should have been," he says. "No informer can say I told him, `Let's escape,' but if the government wants to make a conspiracy, they can do it. You can't shake informers loose."
The incident tacked another fifteen years onto his sentence and landed him at Marion. If he had any hopes of avoiding the trip to ADX, they disappeared in 1990, when a guard shook down his cell and emerged with a handcuff key. At the time, Lopez Rivera was in a "transitional unit," within months of being moved to a lower-security prison; his supporters consider the entire affair to be another setup. "After working his way through the system, that would have been the stupidest thing Oscar could have done," says Boulder activist Corinne.
Lopez Rivera doubts he ever would have made it out of Marion anyway. He'd refused to work in the federal prison industry, UNICOR, because the work involved producing coaxial cables for the military. He expects to have a similar problem at ADX, even though the UNICOR shop at Florence assembles office furniture.
"Eventually, they're going to ask me to work in the factory, and I can't do that," he says. "UNICOR has contracts with the Department of Defense. I'll clean toilets, whatever, but as a Vietnam veteran and as a Puerto Rican, I cannot as a matter of principle work with the military."
Vanyur says BOP is primarily interested in Lopez Rivera's behavior, not his principles. The fact that he's been moved to a step-down unit, "despite what anyone thinks of his political affiliations," proves that the government hasn't singled Lopez Rivera out. But Vanyur concedes that an inmate who refuses to pay fines to the government or work in UNICOR is probably going to have problems getting out of ADX.
"If they're not going to follow this program, if they're not going to be responsible adults, then they're not going to get any reduction of restrictions, regardless of their motivation," he says.
Lopez Rivera and prisoners like him find themselves in a grim twilight zone at ADX. The government doesn't acknowledge that it has any political prisoners, let alone prisoners of war. And since the FALN defendants don't recognize the authority of the government, they refuse to apply for parole, even if they've reached their eligibility date.
Over the years, several independentistas have broken with the POW position and sought parole--usually without success. One, Alberto Rodriguez, issued a statement last year saying that he felt "marginalized" by his years in prison and no longer believed the political stance served a useful purpose. Lopez Rivera understands the sentiment, but he doesn't share it.
"I don't feel marginalized," he says. "I had no romantic notions; I knew precisely what prison would do to me. When I was captured, I knew from that day on I was no longer a protagonist, that I would have no voice in what was to happen. If I had a different attitude, I would have been destroyed by spending eight years in Marion."
Levasseur's situation is remarkably similar. He lost 56 months of "clean time" at Marion over minor infractions--the most serious of which, apparently, involved his refusal to work for UNICOR. Although he's eligible to seek parole, he hasn't applied for a hearing yet because, he says, "I already know what the answer's going to be."
That BOP expected Levasseur--who was convicted of bombing Army and Navy reserve centers and the offices of defense contractor General Electric--to work for the military is one of the stranger ironies of his career as a revolutionary. Raised in a working-class, French-Canadian mill town in Maine, he began his long journey to ADX as a Vietnam veteran turned war protester and union organizer. But his troubles really began after a two-year stint in a Tennessee prison on a 1969 conviction for selling seven dollars' worth of marijuana.
"I went into prison already radicalized," he says. "But I came out a revolutionary. I never considered myself a violent person, but by the time I got out I was more than willing to use violence, not only in a political sense, but on a personal level. I scared myself."
For a short time after his release, Levasseur operated a radical bookstore in Maine and became active in prison-reform efforts. Then he went underground--and stayed there for ten years, making the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for what he obliquely refers to as "clandestine activity."
Prosecutors charge that Levasseur was a member of an organization called the Sam Melville-Jonathan Jackson Unit, which eventually evolved into the United Freedom Front. (Sam Melville was a white prisoner killed by state troopers in the Attica riot; Jonathan Jackson was a black youth who died while attempting to kidnap a California judge in an effort to free his brother, Soledad inmate George Jackson.) The two groups have been blamed for a series of bank robberies and bombings in the Northeast in the late Seventies and early Eighties, including attacks on Mobil Oil, IBM and a South African consulate, in protest of apartheid and U.S. military involvement in Latin America.
Like Lopez Rivera, Levasseur won't admit to belonging to any particular group. Although indicted for an astonishing array of crimes, he's never been convicted of most of them. He bristles at comparisons to the Oklahoma City bombing suspects or the Unabomber, pointing out that no one was injured in any of the bombings of which he was convicted. Left-wing bombers tend to seek publicity, not bloodshed, and the UFF always phoned in warnings to evacuate before the bombs went off.
Still, the bombing campaign was far from flawless. An early SM-JJ blast at a Boston courthouse injured 22 people. (In a communique, the group blamed courthouse security for failing to heed a warning to evacuate the building.) In 1981 two suspected UFF members were charged with the shooting of a New Jersey state trooper, touching off a massive manhunt that eventually led to the arrest of Levasseur and seven others, including his wife, Patricia.
All eight of the UFF defendants went to prison for the bombings or related charges. (One of the convicted killers of the state trooper, Tom Manning, is currently at ADX, serving life plus thirty years.) But the government wasn't through with them yet. In 1986 federal prosecutors heaped additional indictments on the group for racketeering and seditious conspiracy.
The sedition trial was one of the longest and costliest in federal history. Levasseur acted as his own attorney, delivering a lengthy defense of radical resistance that has since circulated in pamphlet form. In the end, the jury decided for acquittal on some charges and deadlocked on the rest. The last remaining charges Levasseur faced, for an alleged assault on a police officer in the course of a Maine bank robbery, were dropped two years ago, "when they started looking at the cost of the security to bring me back," he says.
Levasseur contends that the UFF's campaign against apartheid was not much different from that of Nelson Mandela, who was jailed under South Africa's sedition laws. That argument hasn't earned him any brownie points with BOP officials. Despite numerous reviews of his classification level during his years at Marion, he remains in the big nowhere of 22-hour-a-day lockdown.
BOP guidelines list a number of criteria ADX prisoners must meet before they can move into the step-down units. "Positive adjustment" is demonstrated by everything from personal hygiene to cell sanitation to "appropriate interaction with staff." The overriding consideration, though, is the same as it was at Marion--whether the factors that led to an inmate's placement in lockdown have been sufficiently "mitigated."
"In some cases," the policy states, in dazzling bureaucratese, "the original placement behavior may have been based on sophisticated, even covert behavior rather than overt physical aggression...In these or other cases, the minimum clear conduct time regarding superficial compliance with institution rules may not be indicative of sufficient mitigation in the original placement behavior."
At Marion, Levasseur filed appeals in an effort to discover what the factors were that he'd failed to mitigate. Responses cited his "leadership role in a group advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government," his prior "fugitive status" and his continuing contact with "individuals in the community who likewise advocate the overthrow of the government"--presumably through articles he's had published in small-circulation leftist publications.
"The factors in my case are my radical views and affiliations," he says. "How is that going to be mitigated? What am I going to do, renounce my political beliefs?"
Whether anyone has ever demonstrated positive adjustment to isolation is an open question. In early nineteenth-century prisons in Pennsylvania, prisoners were kept in separate cells and never spoke to another human being. Some quickly went mad.
Studies of the psychological effects of solitary confinement have found it can produce symptoms of paranoia, hypersensitivity to noise, panic attacks, hallucinations and even episodes of amnesia. One article by Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian reported "the emergence of primitive, aggressive fantasies of revenge, torture, and mutilation of the prison guards" among solitary inmates in Massachusetts. His findings were published around the same time that Silverstein and Fountain were slaughtering guards in the control unit at Marion.
At ADX, every cell is equipped with a "duress button" prisoners can use if they need to summon help. The prison has two full-time psychologists and contracts psychiatric services. Associate warden Vanyur, who has a doctorate in psychology himself, says every staff member has been trained to recognize "mental health emergencies."
"There is the potential that in a more harsh environment, with people who've had some mental health problems, this may cause them to potentially have some deterioration," he says cautiously.
Panic buttons aside, everything about ADX seems designed to discourage prisoners from human contact--not only with each other but with the outside world. Lopez Rivera says he was strip-searched a total of four times before and after a noncontact visit with a relative, a charge prison officials deny. He also claims to have been strip-searched just to use the telephone. (Prisoners are permitted one collect call a month.)
Vanyur says multiple searches are necessary because honor-camp inmates, who sometimes work inside ADX, might "plant" something in the corridors. But Levasseur scoffs at this, noting that the corridors are always cleared of outsiders before he's allowed to move through them, shackled and under the watchful eyes of guards and video cameras. "I haven't been out of my cell without restraints since I've been here," he says.
For Levasseur, the most difficult part of what passes for life at ADX is the noncontact visits themselves. He has three daughters, all born during his years underground. "I haven't touched them since 1989," he says. "That's something that plays with my mind a lot."
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Both he and Lopez Rivera say that their political convictions and outside support network--factors they believe contributed to their placement in isolation--may also help them survive ADX better than other inmates. These days Levasseur keeps busy writing articles in defense of journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer and is scheduled for execution next month.
Newly arrived in the intermediate unit, Lopez Rivera is still adjusting to the increase in privileges, however slight. He now has a pencil sharpener and fingernail clippers. And access to a larger exercise yard. It's still a cage, but one with a small plot of dirt inside it.
"Last week, for the first time, I saw grass," he says. "Something alive."
end of part 2