In the wake of a series of uprisings at federal penitentiaries across the country last month, jittery officials seem determined to crack down on troublesome felons housed in the Federal Correctional Complex just outside the high desert town of Florence. The result? At least three separate incidents of alleged civil rights violations and two federal lawsuits claiming racial and religious discrimination.
The confrontations between prisoners and their keepers have been sparked by such trivial matters as religious fliers and one inmate's desire to speak French. In one case, the Florence city council sought to have a notorious evangelist-convict shipped to another prison in the hope that his annoying flock would follow. In another, an inmate was punished for being too outspoken in a press interview that prison officials weren't supposed to be monitoring in the first place. And a recent arrival at Florence's U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), the supermax of the four-prison complex and the toughest pen in the entire federal system, claims to have been threatened and brutalized by prison staff trying to break his hunger strike.
The flier flap concerns Tony Alamo, the flamboyant evangelist whose Arkansas-based religious empire fell apart over charges of tax fraud and child abuse. Last year Alamo, also known as Bernie Lazar Hoffman, was convicted in Memphis of filing false income-tax returns; he's currently serving a 48-month sentence at Florence's medium-security prison. Sixteen of Alamo's followers have moved to Colorado to be near their disgraced leader--much to the displeasure of Florence residents, who have discovered the group's trademark anti-Papist brochures on their doorsteps and windshields.
At an October meeting, city councilman Jimmie Lloyd proposed that the council demand Alamo's immediate transfer to another federal prison. According to the minutes, Lloyd claimed that, as a condition for building the federal complex on land donated by Florence, U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials had promised that "any inmate causing a problem in the community would be transferred...even if it was as mundane as a prisoner's family moving in and becoming a nuisance in the community."
Lloyd's motion passed 4-1. Alamo and his followers promptly filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Florence, the city council, Mayor Merle Strickland and City Manager Steve Rabe, asking for $1 million in damages for violation of their rights of free speech and exercise of religion. BOP officials have denied making any promises about transferring prisoners who don't meet the town's standards, and city officials have since backpedaled from Lloyd's proposal. In a recent court filing, the city's attorney claims that Florence officials now have "no intention of seeking a transfer of Tony Alamo."
At the moment, it looks like Alamo is staying put--and so is Ray Luc Levasseur, a self-styled revolutionary from Maine who lost all his accrued "clean time" toward getting out of ADX as a result of a bizarre incident during a media interview a few weeks ago.
Serving a 45-year sentence for a series of bombings of military targets by a group known as the United Freedom Front, Levasseur has spent most of his federal time in the system's highest-security prisons. He arrived at ADX last February and has been a strident critic of the supermax, which he describes as "a proto-techno-fascist's architectural wet dream." Since he was interviewed by Westword ("End of the Line," July 12), Levasseur's subsequent press contacts have been closely supervised by ADX officials--despite a BOP policy that is supposed to permit reporters to talk to prisoners without interference or eavesdropping.
Jonathan Franzen, a novelist who interviewed Levasseur last summer for an article in the December issue of Details magazine, reports that during his visit, ADX spokesman Louis Winn was "standing at my shoulder" and "sighing at precise five-minute intervals." More recently, a French television network crew requested an interview with Levasseur, who is of French-Canadian heritage, but was told by Winn that the taping had to be conducted in English. During that interview, Levasseur allegedly made a "derogatory remark" about Winn to the reporter and received a disciplinary writeup for "insolence toward a staff member."
Although BOP policy permits video but not audio monitoring of media interviews, Winn says "the warden can authorize audio supervision if he so chooses." Winn says he accompanied Franzen on his interview because it occurred in a "full-contact room" rather than one of the sealed-glass booths in which prisoners usually receive visitors. "I was pres-ent there simply for the media person's safety," he insists.
As for the French television interview, Winn says he was positioned thirty feet away from the visitors' booths, out of earshot of "normal conversation"--yet he still managed to hear Levasseur's derogatory remark on an open mike. "I won't get into specifics of what he said, because he's still in the process of appealing the decision he received [on the infraction]," Winn says.
But if the interview wasn't supposed to be monitored, why did Winn request that it be conducted in English? "It was a lapse in judgment, to be honest," he says. "Had they wanted to do it in French, they could have."
For his part, Levasseur denies he made any punishable remark. At his disciplinary hearing, he attempted to present statements from the TV crew about what was actually said, but ADX officials declined to allow such evidence. "I suspect the administration wants to use this disciplinary-hearing conviction as a pretense to bar me from doing future media interviews," Levasseur wrote to Westword. "They want to punish and silence me for speaking out."
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."
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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.